Barwon Booksellers - Secondhand and Collectibles


  • Arthur Upfield's Itinerant Thrillers

    10 October 2014 -

    "If you like detective stories that are something more than puzzles, that have solid characters and backgrounds, that avoid familiar patterns of crime and detection, then Mr Upfield is your man.”  JB Priestley.
    One of the most consistently popular authors over the years here at Barwon Booksellers has been the detective writer Arthur Upfield, most particularly his books featuring the aboriginal Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, or ‘Bony’.  The combination of Upfield’s outback settings and his talent for atmosphere and intriguing plots have seen enthusiasm amongst readers endure long after many of his books have disappeared out of print.

    Upfield is a curious case. Born in England, he was sent to Australia by his father when he was young, ostensibly to ‘make a man of him’. Enlisting with the Australian forces in the First World War he fought at Gallipoli and in France, before choosing to return to Australia to work as an itinerant through the outback. By the late 1920s he began publishing detective stories based on his experiences of the bush, and when The Sands Of Windee hit the bestseller lists in 1931 his future course was set.

    For decades Upfield travelled through the Australian landscape, stopping in a location for a number of months to research a new Bony story, before moving on to the next book and town. In this way he wrote thrillers set in many well known places, including Wilcannia (The Barrakee Mystery), Broken Hill (The Bachelors of Broken Hill), Lake Eyre (Wings Above The Diamantina), Lake Mungo (Death Of A Swagman), Broome (The Widows of Broome), Bermagui (The Mystery of Swordfish Reef), Kangaroo Valley (Bony & The Kelly Gang), and, interestingly, the Wolfe Creek crater in Western Australia (The Will Of The Tribe), which subsequently became the setting of the well known Australian horror movie, Wolf Creek. Upfield also came through our local region of western Victoria in the early 1950s, setting books on the Great Ocean Road (The Clue Of The New Shoe) and The Grampians (The Mountains Have A Secret). In many instances he created fictional names for these places but his diguises were generally light, as was the case withThe Clue Of The New Shoe, which he set in a coastal town by the name of Split Point.

    Even now local stories are told about his time in these parts – it seems he certainly got to know the locals well - and his novels have developed an antiquated charm as the years have passed. In many ways they provide an authentic, often politically incorrect, window into a bygone era of Australia. Not surprisingly Upfield's aboriginal detective has come under much academic attention, championed by some as a strong indigenous character in an era when they didn't appear in fiction, and criticised by others as encouraging typical cultural stereotypes of the time.

    Whatever the case, Upfield’s work endures for many, where much PC fiction of recent times does not. Part of the appeal is undoubtedly nostalgic but there is also skill in his writing, as well as voices and atmospheres that, for many readers, ring true.

    At Barwon Booksellers we find his books get snapped up very quickly whenever we chance upon them, and having just bought a collection of his paperback titles we thought we’d throw the net out wider by making you aware of them through this newsletter. The paperbacks are mostly at $8, with the occasional one going at $7. See below for  a few examples. There are also a couple of handsome hardbacks among this lot, both of which are first editions. Bony & The Mouse is $25 and Bony & The Kelly Gang is $30.

    I actually think everyone in Australia could do worse than reading at least a couple of Upfield’s books, as his page-turning plots provide a great vehicle to access the feel and strong characters of mid-twentieth century Australia. The immense cultural change of the last few decades, whilst making the books seem anachronistic at times, also add to their fascination. And quite apart from that, Upfield was nothing else if not a dab hand at creating a page turning read.