Bony and the Black Virgin (1959, also republished as The Torn Branch) is the twenty fifth in Arthur W. Upfield’s series on the mixed-descent Indigenous-Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, informally known as ‘Bony’. In this instalment, Bony travels to drought-stricken outback NSW to investigate the murder of two men. By the time he arrives, some six months have passed since the discovery of the bodies, so it takes the talents of a detective like Bony to uncover clues in this sun-baked, sand-blown country. There are plenty of puzzling clues for the reader, with a surprising ending: in this case, even Bony got the killer and the motive wrong. Upfield also shares his extensive knowledge of the country and the effects of a long-lasting drought, and the eventual breaking of it, on the landscape, the fauna and the people. Using Bony as a mouthpiece, Upfield offers opinions on the way the intelligence and sophistication of the blacks is underestimated and how they are educated but offered no employment to make use of that intelligence and education.
The old but still popular series was written from the 1920s to the 1960s, enjoying frequent re-editions in different countries (hence the frequent change of titles). Most of the books in this series are set in or near towns or stations in the Australian bush. The books offer a great sense of place and culture of the time, good mysteries to solve, and an ethnically ambiguous detective who balances his ‘innate’ knack re understanding of the Bush to his Holmesian logic. Typically, Bony’s settings avoid larger towns or cities, and the bush is where the narration is at its most evocative and the main character at his best. The outspoken racism of the series may be difficult to digest, as well as the series’ general attitude towards women, as the novels are grounded in the cult of white male mateship—but, as different commentators point out, with a twist. The latter has all to do with Upfield’s outsider status in Australian society and the sympathy he felt for bush life and its Indigenous inhabitants. If we can still enjoy Upfield’s novels, it is because he broke new ground in Australian crime fiction by writing up the mixed-descent protagonist as being able to perform well in both black and white society. Whereas the Indigenous author Philip McLaren has been very critical of Upfield’s stereotyping of the Aborigene, some scholars have also commended his exploration of race matters in Australian crime fiction. It should therefore not come as a surprise that Upfield, in the racist setting of the earlier 20th century,was more popular abroad, especially the USA, than in Australia.