Mystery author #7: Arthur Upfield

Titles: The Battling Prophet & Bony and the Mouse (American title: Journey to the Hangman).
No. in series:19 & 24
Published: 1956 & 1959
Setting & time: Australia, 1950's (but has a timeless feel)
Availability: Both seem to be out of print, but are readily available second hand
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police detective

This time I read two books by the chosen author. Both books come from the same series, about Detective-Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte, an Australian half-aborigine, half-white police detective who uses his instincts as much as he does his police training and his clever mind to solve crimes, usually “cold” murders that other policemen have failed to solve. In fact, he specialises in cold cases. Bony, as he is known, is popular and there have been at least two television series, one based on the books, the other on the name and occupation.

Upfield writes with dry humour and is capable of letting the reader see the funny side of quite serious situations like murder. His character descriptions are rounded and realistic and human nature plays a big part in both books. The two books are totally different in set-up, but Bony’s work methods are similar in both: he quietly and unobtrusively becomes acquainted with the people around him, forms ideas and follows his instincts.

In The Battling Prophet, Bony is on holiday and goes to investigate the death of a man famous for his infallible weather predictions, at the behest of the man’s best friend. The friend claims that the man was murdered, while everyone else believes he died of alcohol poisoning. As the body has been cremated, there seems to be no way of proving it was murder, but the friend convinces Bony, who sets out to look for the murderer. There are plenty of suspects. Heirs, relatives, foreign agents and Australian secret service men are on the prowl, trying to locate the dead man’s notebook where he wrote down his weather prediction formulas. Any of them could have done the deed, and it all comes together in an interesting dance, sometimes funny, sometimes macabre. The solution is so obvious when Bony finally reveals it that you think “of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”. But you don’t, because Upfield breaks one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction – he keeps information that is known to the detective from the reader.

Upfield does the same thing in the other book, Bony and the Mouse. In that one, Bony goes undercover as a drifter to try to solve a series of murders in a small town. In that one, it is well-nigh impossible to guess who the killer is, although the motive can easily be guessed. The “siege” at the end of the book is a brilliant piece of psychological warfare, orchestrated by Bony, who is as much a psychologist as he is a policeman.

I suppose Upfield keeps these clues secret because Bony works intuitively, but it is still a bit annoying and suggests that he can't quite explain how Bony arrives at his conclusions.

Rating: Each book gets 3 stars and so does the author. Would have been 3+ and 4 but for the author giving the detective an unfair advantage over the reader. Am on the lookout for more, especially the beginning books in the series.

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