Cake in the Hat Box (1955, also republished as Sinister Stones) is the twentieth th in Arthur W. Upfield’s series on the mixed-descent Indigenous-Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, informally known as ‘Bony’. In this instalment, the story starts with the discovery by a long-distance truck driver of the body of Constable Stenhouse in his jeep on the road to Agar’s Lagoon. Stenhouse, a competent policeman but not a well-liked man, has been shot, and his native tracker is missing. At first, it looks like, the tracker, Jackie Musgrove, has shot his Constable and cleared out with his swag and rifle. But the local blacks are making smoke signals and gathering purposefully. Bony happens to be in the town of Agar’s Lagoon due to engine trouble in his flight home from Broome, and as the case gets more interesting, he relishes being asked to help with the investigation. This Bony book is filled with a collection of outback characters, some stoic, some downright bizarre. Despite Bony’s occasional laconic attitude, Upfield gives us fast-paced novel with an original plot, a few twists, especially the motive and the murderer. Upfield’s extensive knowledge of the outback and the Aboriginal shines through all his Bony novels.
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.