Venom House (1952) is the seventeenth in Arthur W. Upfield’s series on the mixed-descent Indigenous-Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, informally known as ‘Bony’. This instalment focuses on the Answerth family’s mansion, which seems to deserve its nickname of Venom House – perhaps because of its forbidding setting, an island in the centre of a man-made lake, its treacherous waters studded by the skeletons of long-dead trees. Perhaps it’s because of the unquiet ghosts of the Aboriginals slaughtered by the Answerth ancestors. Whatever the reason, most people are content to give Venom House and its occupants a wide berth, until a couple of corpses turn up in the lake. Inspector Bonaparte has a sudden urge to get to knows the Answerths and their charming home much better.
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.