The Bone Is Pointed
by Arthur W. Upfield

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mystery

Angus & Robertson: Sydney, 1938

288 pages; map April 2005

Detection in the book of the Outback

The Bone Is Pointed is the sixth novel of Arthur W. Upfield's series about Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. It is often rated the very best of this fine mystery series, and is a good choice to begin with because it delves so deeply into the two sides of Inspector Bonaparte's character. Bony (as he wishes friends to call him) is an Australian half-caste, European and Aborigine, inheriting complementary talents from both sides; and as a policeman, finding it natural and useful to keep a foot in each world.

Bony brings to detecting challenges both his discriminating ratiocination and his intimate feel for nature and humanity-in-nature, especially in the sparsely populated bush-country of the vast, dry Queensland Outback. His eye for detail, whether of a crime scene or the "book of the bush", is a joy to share. When Bony starts a case, he gives it his full and close attention, and time without stint:

"It is an investigation to be conducted only by me, on several counts. I am, of course, familiar with drawing-rooms, but they are not my natural background. This world of the bush is my background, my natural element. The bush is like a giant book offering to me plain print and the language I understand. The book is so big, however, that I require sometimes a great deal of time to find in it the passages interesting me ... time is my greatest asset; without it I am as ordinary men."

We traverse the hot dusty contours of the Outback as we unravel the obscure mystery, both through Bony's sharp depth-perception.

Settlers & aboriginies, cattle & murder

So these remote cattle and sheep stations of the Queensland semi-desert are Bony's element. Arthur Upfield gives us here both a portrait of ranch life and glimpses into the tribal lives of the Aborigines. The plot of The Bone Is Pointed vividly entwines settlers and Aborigines, ranch business and aerial views from a small airplane, the "bush telegraph" and sharply pointed magic. The novel vividly portrays a cross-section of the Australian interior and its inhabitants.

Bony himself is in more intimate danger than in any other of the Inspector Bonaparte mysteries. He is pushed or blocked from both sides of his nature, in various ways by white and black locals and even by his superiors; Bony's sense of pride and self-worth is put to the test. We see not only the drive of his superb mind, but the weaknesses and strengths of his dual nature, united by that determinedly earned pride.

Reading clues from a crime scene as from a book makes the detection process seem almost passive, a matter of turning pages in front of one's eyes and letting clues accumulate. But these Outback cattle stations of Australia are a vast book of pages with too little writing. No one can see enough of this dry and sparse country, and clues rarely tumble into one's lap. To learn the nature of the crime, even to verify that there was a crime, Inspector Bonaparte must find a missing man — or his body.

Electro-magnet in the desert

While obstructions and dangers mount, Bony provides a more active analogy to Police Sergeant Blake across a little cookfire:

Blake stood up from brewing the coffee. He said:

"Well, it appears to me that finding a body in this country after it has been planted six months is too much to hope for. It is harder than going through a haystack to find a needle."

"It is no more difficult than going through a haystack for a needle with an electro-magnet," Bony objected. "The extent and variety of the country doesn't matter. The time factor is of little account. My mind ought to be the electro-magnet in attracting the body of Anderson. ..."

As if all this isn't enough for a truly memorable novel, in The Bone Is Pointed Upfield also shows us a rabbit migration in progress, a great mindless tide of rabbits flowing as a furry river across the drylands. This is a striking image that will remain with you; but the twists and turns of detection as Bony follows old and new trails are a joy to accompany.

A wonderful novel.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series
by Arthur W. Upfield

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