Bony & the Kelly Gang (aka Valley of the Smugglers; 1960) by Arthur W. Upfield
Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte goes deep undercover in Cork Valley, New South Wales. He's looking for the murderer of a government excise officer who was killed while searching for illicit stills. The Superintendent is sure that inhabitants of Cork Valley have a lot of illicit activities going on, but none of the policemen or excise officers who have investigated could find a thing...and men who tried to go undercover before just disappeared. Bony is warned of the danger as well as the impossible nature of the assignment...but Bony has never failed at a case he's taken up and danger doesn't scare him.
So, he's given a false background full of horse thievin' and other small crimes, and appears in the Valley as a man anxious to leave his past and any snoopy policemen behind him. The Kellys and Conways are the principle families in the Valley--they control all trade and keep a close eyes on who comes and goes. And they don't suffer strangers easily. But they take a liking to "Nat Bonnay" and he gradually earns their trust and is treated as one of their own. He discovers the source of the illicit trade and...being Inspector Bonaparte...he also tracks down the killer. But his loyalties are put to the test because he grows very fond of the families who wander just the other side of the law.
I had a strong feeling that I had read this one before. But I have no record of having done so. I can only assume that it is because Bony follows his common practice of going undercover in order to solve the mystery. He's posed as fence mender, a horse breaker, and a ranch hand on sheep farms to name just a few. He seems to melt right into the roles he takes on and must be a pretty athletic/strong man because he takes on jobs heavy in manual labor. This time he starts out as a "spud digger" which sounds like back-breaking work as it is described in the book.
Upfield manages to bring the Kellys and Conways to life and it's easy to see why Bony begins to have such affection for these people that he is investigating. He has to remind himself that he's there on a job and that there is a murderer somewhere in the Valley. Much as he may like the families, he cannot let a murderer go free. He might be tempted to look the other way on stills and smuggling (after all, that's not what he was asked to investigate), but he can't possibly forget his duty when it comes to murder.
While I enjoyed Upfield's descriptions of the Valley and its inhabitants and, like Bony, became fond of many of the Conways and Kellys, the mystery itself didn't interest me as much as previous installments have done. Perhaps it was because Bony's method has become pretty formulaic--go undercover, dig up secrets, solve the mystery. And, really, once Bony was on the spot the mystery didn't stay mysterious very long. It became pretty obvious who must have done away with the excise man. The real question was how Bony was going to bring that person to justice without causing a great deal of damage to the people he had come to like so well. ★★★
First line: The secondary road was ruler-straight across the narrow coastal lowlands to the base of the Southern Mountains of New South Wales.
Last line: "To the divil with English," Bony said, producing a gum leaf. "I know the Gaelic for 'Danny Boy'."
Deaths = 8 (six shot; one neck broken; one natural)