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the bone is pointed

21 april 2021

I had been wanting to read some of Arthur Upfield's Napoleon Bonaparte mysteries for quite a while, and got my final push toward them when my local book club picked one for this May. I was very impressed with the strange and energetic novel The Bone Is Pointed (1938), the sixth in the Bony series. I am not sure what to make of it. I imagine different readers make very different things of it.

Bony, as he calls himself and invites everyone to call him, is the most brilliant Detective Inspector in Queensland and probably all of Australia. His father was white, his mother aboriginal; Bony has embraced both cultures and moves fluidly between them. He is thus your best bet to investigate a complicated crime involving both indigenous and settler-colonist Australians. And in a hundred investigations to this point, Bony has never failed to nab his culprit.

The mystery begins when a white man disappears into the bush. At this point I am wondering if Australian fiction has any plots aside from white people disappearing into the bush. Both the Australian novels I'd read earlier this year (Picnic at Hanging Rock and Force of Nature) start with white people disappearing into the bush. But in both those stories, written many years apart and well after The Bone Is Pointed, the bush is simply a vacancy in nature. In Upfield's novel, the bush is saturated with life and especially with humanity.

Upfield was as white as those later authors Joan Lindsay and Jane Harper, and an Englishman at that, but he spent his adulthood in Australia learning to write – I'll say "as if convincingly" – about indigenous Australians and the land they inhabit. I qualify with "as if" because I know nothing about Australia, and people who do, of any ethnicity, might well read Upfield as a big phony. But the rhetoric of The Bone Is Pointed is that of an insider determined to dispel outsiders' notions – and maybe those of some white Australians – that the continent is an empty place for white settlement.

Bony is a university graduate with a keen commitment to deduction from bootprints, cigar ash, and all the rest of the Sherlock-Holmes toolkit. His method is to show up at a crime scene and spend as long as it takes poring over stuff with a microscope. But he disavows a detached perspective. For one thing, Bony is "too much a Javert" (151), as one observer puts it: cases become personal to him, and he refuses to disengage from adversaries. For another, in mysteries where the victim disappears into the bush, Bony declares

I've got to go bush, to be one with the bush, to re-create the scene and imagine the conditions out there that day. (57)
"My greatest gift," Bony says on another occasion, is "unconsciousness of time" (116). Like his fellow aborigines who don't measure duration by the white man's clock (or again, as Upfield and other white observers suppose they don't), Bony has to let the organic rhythms of the bush guide his detection. And there's a fair amount of scientific practicality in that unscientific behavior. Bony's superiors give him a couple of weeks to solve a case, but he always ignores them, realizing that some clues may work their way out of the pattern of the landscape in their own good time, which may not even be human time.

Bony, as the odd back cover of the 2020 ETT Imprint edition puts it, is "a unique figure among top-flight detectives." His indomitable mix of science and intuition makes him the best sleuth in his nation, and he needs to be. "In this country," Bony says wryly,

colour is no bar to a keen man's progress providing that he has twice the ability of his rivals. … That I stand midway between the black man, who makes fire with a stick, and the white man, who kills women and babies with bombs and machine guns, should not be accounted against me. (38)
I'll avoid specific spoilers, but the tangled logic of the case at hand is such that Bony finds his midway position accounted against him not so much by the white characters as by the indigenous ones – though their animus against the white-rationalist side of Bony is ultimately provoked not by prejudice but by their loyalty to white-paternalist protectors.

I am not sure how to read this ideology, or whether I have even begun, as a complete outsider, to "unpack" it. The Bone Is Pointed is sharply plotted, keenly progressive in sensibility, and steeped in apparent Australian lore. Yet it may for all that be mostly an exercise in wishful thinking in the form of a semi-cozy detective story. Bony is the perfect emblem for a white reader who wants to feel in tune with non-whites, and he may be perfectly fantastic.

All the same, it's interesting to find that fantasy expressed in the 1930s, when most non-whites in English-language detective fiction were either racist stereotypes or comic relief or both. Bony reminds me most of Nathan Active, hero of Stan Jones' Alaska mysteries of the early 21st century. Like Bony, Nathan stands astride two cultures (white and Inupiat), and like Bony, Nathan's creator is a white man in deep sympathy with native people but at the same time taking it on himself to speak for them.

Upfield, Arthur W. The Bone Is Pointed. 1938. Exile Bay, NSW: ETT, 2020.