Death of a Swagman (1945) is the tenth in Arthur W. Upfield’s series on the mixed-descent Indigenous-Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, informally known as ‘Bony’. In this instalment, stockman George Kendall is found dead in an isolate hut not far from the sleepy country town of Merino, in what looks like murder. Six weeks later Bony arrives incognito at Merino and provokes the local police to lock him up. There is method in Bony’s madness – in semi-detention he is made to paint the police station and keeps a perfect disguise while searching for a single-minded killer.
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.