Invisible Ink: No 190 - Arthur Upfield


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The Independent Culture

Golden Age crime-writing was not the exclusive province of the British and the Americans. Arthur Upfield is an interesting case, because something very disturbing happened to him. Upfield was born in 1890 in Hampshire, but in 1910, after he fared poorly in his exams (he was planning to become an estate agent) his father shipped him off to Australia, where he eventually settled – if you can call it settling, for he led an itinerant life.

During the First World War he fought at Gallipoli and in France, and married an Australian nurse in Egypt. Returning to Australia, he became particularly interested in the Aboriginal culture, and for the next 20 years travelled extensively through the outback, taking all sorts of short-term jobs. He soon began writing, using the unusual characters and atmospheric locations he encountered.

During his travels, Upfield met an Aboriginal man known as Tracker Leon, whose character he utilised as the basis for a fictional detective. “Boney” (misprinted by the publisher as “Bony”) was short for DI Napoleon Bonaparte. Employed as a tracker by the Queensland Police, Boney’s investigations took him to some remote sites, from mountain ranges, lighthouses and sheep stations, to reefs and deserts, and along the rabbit-proof fence in the wheat belt of Western Australia. Upfield’s novels were highly regarded, and H R F Keating included The Sands of Windee (1931) in his top 100 list of the best crime and mystery novels ever written.

In the course of the book’s writing, Upfield needed to devise a method of getting rid of a body, and asked a friend for help. The friend suggested a disposal method: burn the victim along with a large animal, sift out any metal fragments, dissolve them in acid, grind any surviving bones and throw the remains to the wind. But the method was so efficient that after Upfield discussed it with a stockman called Snowy Rowles, Rowles used the method to commit three real-life murders. Rowles followed Upfield’s instructions, leaving no physical evidence that could be used in a court. But in one murder he had omitted an important step; the wrong kind of solder in the remains of a melted wedding ring identified him. Snowy Rowles was arrested and hanged in June 1931.

Upfield’s books became very popular in the USA after servicemen were stationed in Australia and took the books home. A hit TV series was made featuring his detective tracker, and as a record of Australian outback life between 1930 and 1950 the 37 books are invaluable.