Death of a Lake
by Arthur W. Upfield

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mystery

Heinemann: London, 1954: 225 pages
Heinemann: London, 1967: 250 pages

Doubleday: New York, 1954: 188 pages September 2012

A lake evaporates in heat and tension

Death of a Lake is the seventeenth novel of Arthur W. Upfield's series about Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, appearing some twenty-five years into the writing of these distinctive mystery novels. This is one of my favorites, because again Bony is far afield in the dry and empty Australian Outback, the setting that shows him to best advantage.

Lake Otway, six hundred miles from the sea or a city, spreads over thousands of acres, shimmers beautifully and supports thousands of sheep as well as kangaroos, rabbits, and other wildlife. But it is an intermittent lake, a dustbowl refilled three years earlier, standing then nineteen feet deep and now dwindled below three feet: evaporation will finish emptying it again within weeks.

The Lake Otway out-station, fifty lonely miles from Porchester station's homestead-headquarters, houses a handful of stockmen taking care of sheep and the attendant horses and equipment, and two women who cook and keep house. A skein of tension fixes the people's attention on each other and on the lake, because a young and vibrant stockman named Ray Gillen had taken a midnight swim, and never had been seen again. Would the re-dried lakebed reveal the man's body, and how he had died? What happened to the large sum of cash he'd possessed?

Fifteen months after Gillen was thought to be drowned, Inspector Bonaparte happened to peruse the case file. ...

Inspector Bonaparte climbed into the cabin of the three-ton truck in the guise of a horse-breaker, Sergeant Mansell and Mr Wallace, the owner-manager of Porchester Station, being the only persons aware of his identity.

The horse-breaker was smoothly dressed in brown twill shirt and trousers, well worn elastic-sided riding-boots, and an old broad-brimmed felt. And on the load was his neatly rolled swag of blankets and normal equipment.

The heat-death of Lake Otway dominates the characters in Death of a Lake and hence its plot. The heat wave presses heavily upon the lake-water, land, rabbits, birds, and people. Upfield makes the minutiae of out-station life sharp and vivid, even as habits and procedures begin to waver and distort from extreme heat. It's a hard living in a desiccated, near-desert land, and both human and animal residents must work hard to live there, even to survive heat and thirst as their lovely three-years' oasis wafts into air — along with, perhaps, the reprieve of at least one of them.

Death of a Lake is a superb mystery novel of human psychology in a setting of natural fascination. In both of these realms Inspector Bonaparte is expert, and where they combine here in the Outback, his mastery is a joy to watch. There are always ingenuity and suspense in Arthur Upfield's Bony mysteries. I've read this book several times, freshly re-accompanying the great detective in his close reading of mankind and nature.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series
by Arthur W. Upfield

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