‘Death Of A Swagman’ – Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte #9 by Arthur W. Upfield

In an isolated hut not far from the sleepy country town of Merino, stockman George Kendall is found dead and it looks very much like murder.

Six weeks later, when the murderer is still at large, another stockman turns up in the township and, as a first move, provokes the local sergeant to lock him up. This particular stockman is Detective-Inspector Napolean Bonaparte, and there’s method in his seeming madness.

While serving a semi-detention sentence and being made to paint the police station, he wears the best of all possible disguises for a policeman on the trail of a ruthless and single-minded killer.

‘Death Of A Swagman‘ is an Australian Golden Age Mystery first published in 1945. The publishers felt the need to preface the book with this text:

Editorial Note

Part of the appeal of Arthur Upfield’s stories lies in their authentic portrayal of many aspects of Outback Australian life in the 1930s and through into the 1950s, The dialogue especially, is a faithful evocation of how people spoke. Hence these books reflect and depict the attitudes and ways of speech, particularly with regard to Aborigines and to women, which were then commonplace. In reproducing these books, the publisher does not endorse the attitudes or opinions they express.

Having read the book, I can see why they did this. The gap between this and a modern drama like ‘Mystery Road’ is immense.

For example, the start of the story depends on the fact that, because Napoleon Bonaparte is, in his words, a half-caste, no one meeting him for the first time would assume that he was a police officer. Arriving in town incognito, he manages to get the local police sergeant to arrest him simply by sleeping on a bench during the day and by telling the sergeant to go away when the man wakes him. Throughout the book, Bonaparte’s ‘mixed blood’ is used as the key to his personality. His unusual abilities are explained as coming from the amalgamation of the rational, educated, dispassion gifted him by his white side and his ability to feel the call of the bush and to read the signs upon it like words on a page that comes from his aboriginal blood which has apparently made his an expert tracker although, as he says, “Not as good as a full black”.

I’m glad that Bolinda Publishing decided to deal with this by adding an editorial note and leaving the reader to deal with the text rather than taking the bowdlerisation approach that HarperCollins has currently proposed for Agatha Christie’s books I think it serves us well to see the attitudes and behaviours that were taken for granted only seventy-eight years ago. How else do we judge the changes made in a lifetime?

I enjoyed ‘Death Of A Swagman’ mostly for the slightly humorous and eccentric view it gave me of life in a small town in the bush in 1945. The town of Merino is a long way from Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. The Police Sergeant based there rules over a region of 9,000 square miles and 120 people. The one-street town is surrounded by cattle stations and dominated by the massive white sand dunes of the Walls Of China in what is now the Mungo National Park.

I enjoyed the window into this different world. The scene with the funeral and the race ahead of the storm that followed it was beautifully done. The dialogue, with the exception of the words spoken by Bonaparte himself, was evocative and convincing.

I struggled with Bonaparte at first, He didn’t seem real to me. He seems to me to be a literary construct, like Sherlock Holmes. Someone who is more a plot device than a person. He’s interesting to watch but hard to believe in, something that Upfield compensates for by surrounding him with recognisable, relatable people. Well, actually, it’s really recognisable, relatable men. The women are all a little too sanitised to be relatable.

The attitudes towards women and children and this book caught me by surprise. They were romanticised in a way that reminded me of Dickens and Twain from nearly a century earlier.

The plot held me for most of the book. I enjoyed watching Bonaparte investigate in a leisurely way. The action scenes worked well and the abduction of a key character towards the end added a satisfying amount of tension. Unfortunately, when we reached the big reveal, the motive behind the whole elaborate scheme required a suspension of disbelief that I wasn’t capable of. It made no sense to me and I couldn’t see why anyone else would give it credence. The way the killer reacted after being confronted also seemed very unlikely.

I’m glad to have sampled Arthur Upfield’s work but I don’t think I’ll travel any further in the company of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte.

One thought on “‘Death Of A Swagman’ – Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte #9 by Arthur W. Upfield

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