Monday, June 17, 2019

The Barrakee Mystery

Please note that this review may use terms or descriptions from the work itself for those of mixed heritage. No disparagement or disrespect is intended.

The Barrakee Mystery (1929) is the first book in the Inspector Napoleon (Bony) Bonaparte mysteries by Arthur W. Upfield. Even though this is Bony's first recorded case, the half-caste detective already has a formidable reputation--he has never left a case unsolved. When King Henry, an aborigine from Western Australia, is found dead at Barrakee Station, land belonging to John Thornton--a prominent sheep rancher, Bony is sent to investigate because it is thought that the motives, if any, may rest in the aboriginal community. What might have been an accident in the tremendous thunderstorm is soon proved by Bony to have been deliberate murder--a murder using that most Australian of instruments, a boomerang. He will have to use all of his detective abilities to discover why King Henry was on Thornton's land and who had a reason to kill him.

Upfield's novels are always enjoyable. He provides motives for murder that are uniquely Australian as well as introducing readers to Australian life and environs of the early 20th Century. The stories are peopled with memorable characters representing a time and place far removed from my own and he vividly portrays their concerns of the time. We may not agree with some of their concerns--particularly when it involves race relations--but we can't say that Upfield tries to hide anything. Except maybe the murderer. But then that's his job. And he does it well in this debut novel. I did not spot the murderer and was satisfactorily surprised in the wrap-up. ★★★★

[Finished on 6/1/19; Death = hit on head]

Spoilery bits ahead [the prime motive for the murder will be discussed--continue only if you don't mind having that spoiled for you]

As part of the mystery, this book features the question of nature versus nurture. One of the characters winds up being a half-caste like our hero, Bony--but this person doesn't know it. He has been raised as the son of a prominent white sheep ranching couple. According to the story, this young man has lived nearly twenty years of his life looking and acting just as white as his family. No one has suspected that he is not the son of Mr. and Mrs. John Thornton, but that of their dead cook, Mary, and the man who "betrayed" her. Their son died immediately after birth and the "Little Lady" (as Mrs. Thornton is known to all) fell in love with Mary's baby and promised the dying woman to take him as her own. But there are deeper secrets--Mary never revealed who the father of her child was until she lay on her deathbed and told Ann that it was King Henry, a black man. And Mrs. Thornton never told a soul. That secret, of course lies at the heart of the murder.

But my question is this--could a man grow up so light-skinned as to pass for fully white and then suddenly when he hits about twenty begin to turn darker and darker? Wouldn't changes in pigmentation occur sooner than that? Could he be raised in a white family, educated, socialized, and trained to be a man (for the time period) of position and class and then with "the cessation of college life, the return to the native lands of his [as yet unknown to him] father" suddenly give over to the "hereditary urge" and revert to his "ancestral blackness," abandoning the "veneer of civilization?" Upfield puts all of these declarations in the mouth of our half-aboriginal detective. When discussing the complexities of the case, Bony says: "...when Mary whispered the name of her paramour, the father of her child, Mrs. Thornton deliberately took to her bosom a living asp. The laws of heredity are immutable, and it is a very great pity that she did not recognize this." He goes on to say, "In no case does a half-caste rise to the status of the superior parent." He champions the cause of nature over nurture--claiming that no one of aboriginal blood will be able to resist The Lure of the Bush (the alternate title of this novel).

I would argue that Bony himself is proof that at least some resistance is possible. He works with white colleagues and lives away from the bush. He excels at his chosen field--most likely because of his aboriginal heritage and not in spite of. His expert tracking abilities and knowledge of the bush make him even better as a detective than other officers. Of course, I realize that the customs and prejudices of the times might have prevented Ralph Thornton from being fully accepted once his heritage came out and that is part of the point of the mystery--but I find it hard to believe that his heritage could take him over so completely without it having been known first.

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