The Barrakee Mystery (1928) is the first in Arthur W. Upfield’s series on the mixed-descent Indigenous-Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, informally known as ‘Bony’. In this instalment, Bony goes to New South Wales to investigate the murder of King Henry, a Western Australian Aborigine. Bony’s investigation unravels the odd circumstances surrounding the murder. Why was the well-respected, even awe-inspiring Henry killed during a thunderstorm in New South Wales? What old feud inspired the murder? Who was the silent witness? It is only ‘natural’ that this first story of Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte takes us to a sheep station in the Darling River bush country, a terrain he knows very well so able to tackle issues of mixed blood and divided loyalties.
The novel stands out for its detailed setting, the personality of its white-Aboriginal mixed-race hero, the human feeling in the story, and the way the story mirrors its time and place, early 20th c. rural Australia. At several points, Bony reflects what modern people may see as the racism in the book. “Bony was intensely moral. The loose-living customs of the civilized aborigines, and the majority of white people as well, found no favour in the man who tried to pattern his life on that of his hero [Napoleon Bonaparte].” In other words, Bony doesn’t like mixed-race (or mixed-class) assignations, and so not even himself as the product of a mixed-race affair. As a man of his time, he considers mixing races immoral. Inevitably, as the year of publication is 1928, Upfield’s story both builds on, and questions the insurmountable division of the white and black races.
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, 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.