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the barrakee mystery

17 june 2022

I'm going to have to spoil The Barrakee Mystery to talk about it at all, though as with so many books I talk about here, it's over 90 years old and few people are likely to be interested in it. If you are and you like surprises preserved, read no further.

The Barrakee Mystery is the first of more than two dozen "Bony" mysteries by Arthur Upfield. (In the United States, it was called The Lure of the Bush, a central thematic phrase; "Barrakee" is a fictional place name, not as evocative, perhaps even to Australian readers.) I had read one Bony before, The Bone Is Pointed (1938), a troubling but intriguing story of a detective caught between two cultures that, being of mixed ancestry, he relates to equally. "Bony" – as everyone calls detective Napoleon Bonaparte, had an aboriginal mother and a white father, and is at home with both native intuition and Western rationalism.

Bony comes into fictional existence, in The Barrakee Mystery, fully formed. He is a veteran detective, has gone through both university training and long experience as a bush tracker, has become a legendary police detective, and is middle-aged, with a wife and kids back home in Queensland. In his first novel, he is seconded to New South Wales to solve the murder of an aging black man who had reappeared in his old community after two decades of absence – only to be promptly murdered.

The murder of King Henry barely ripples the surface of life at Barrakee Station, and the white characters wonder why anyone would bother to investigate the killing of a native, or to punish his killer if found. Mr. and Mrs. Thornton look ahead to a future of prosperity; their son Ralph will marry his cousin Kate and the young couple will inherit the vast property and its boundless riches.

There is the bothersome secret of Ralph's origin – even Ralph doesn't know it, but he is not their son; the Thorntons adopted him … oh, about two decades earlier. About the time King Henry disappeared, because a white man named Sinclair was chasing him with murderous intent. Sinclair has since died. Purportedly. As soon as King Henry shows up at Barrakee, a white "sundowner" named "Clair" also shows up. And then Henry is dead.

Well, you don't have to be "the finest bush detective in the Commonwealth" (55) to piece that one together. Sinclair and Clair are one and the same, and Clair has bashed King Henry's head in with a boomerang. But Bony doesn't clock out after solving the case. He hangs around Barrakee, rather half-heartedly disguised as a boat painter, in an effort to understand the why of it all – which involves looking into long-buried secrets that nobody else wants unearthed.

Let's see: Ralph is the orphaned son of the Barrakee cook, Mary … Sinclair, turns out to be her surname. Mrs. Thornton was the only other person to learn the name of Mary's "betrayer," as she puts it, but has kept his identity a secret even from her husband. And Mary's brother has tracked King Henry this whole time, with murderous vengeance on his mind …

The whole situation is fairly Faulknerian. As an American reader, as soon as I heard that Ralph was the son of a cook, I imagined the cook as black, and figured that Mr. Thornton, Ralph's adoptive father, was actually his real father too. But no; as the reader is perhaps supposed to intuit, the Sinclairs are white, and of course Ralph's father is King Henry.

It takes Bony only slightly longer to figure out Ralph's racial secret than it did to solve the murder. For one thing, as a "half-caste" himself, Bony empathizes with the racial imperatives that rend Ralph's soul in two as he grows to adulthood. Ralph still doesn't know he's of mixed race, but his body takes over and thrusts the truth at him. In two remarkable scenes, Ralph chases and kills a dingo, and kills an unbreakable horse in the process of trying to tame it. It's his aboriginal side coming out, you see, its one-ness with nature, its indomitable savagery. He feels, as Upfield repeats, the "lure of the bush." As Bony tells Ralph, from experience, even his skin, white since infancy, will grow blacker with time. I don't know if this darkening is a real thing, but in the novel's logic, it is.

The Barrakee Mystery becomes more and more thoroughly racist as it goes along, though its sense of race gives rise to puzzling contradictions. King Henry, for instance, appears very briefly before he is murdered. He helps a white character named Dugdale land a big fish he's caught in the local river. Henry seems like a nice, helpful guy: smart, personable. The only bad thing on his ledger is a long-ago affair with a woman who died bearing his child, and that seems nowhere near bad (except in the eyes of the desperately racist white society he lives on the margins of). Henry (and thus his son Ralph) are racially very different, and miscegenation seems to appall everyone in the novel, but black does not equal evil: it equals a diverse adaptation, a distinct culture.

I say that miscegenation appalls everyone, and that includes Bony, himself of mixed ancestry: another contradiction. Bony's parentage is a great gift to him, as Upfield figures it, especially in the detecting line. But it is also a curse. Bony thinks of his white "half" as superior, and though he draws on the resources of his black "half," he continually feels cursed by it. Racial mixing has made him a kind of superhero, but in the tragic-mutant sense.

Well, after thoroughly spoiling the book – I will say that I have left a few secrets unrevealed. They become pretty transparent in the course of the story, and of course Bony is right there unveiling them along with the reader. But it's a twistier novel than I have suggested, even with all the complications I have described here.

Upfield, Arthur W. The Barrakee Mystery / The Lure of the Bush. 1929. [Sydney]: ETT, 2020.