Death of a Swagman
by Arthur W. Upfield

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mystery

Doubleday: New York, 1945
221 pages

Aldor: London, 1946
196 pages

Angus & Robertson: Sydney, 1947

255 pages August 2010


Death of a Swagman is the ninth mystery novel in Arthur W. Upfield's superb series about Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte — or Bony to his friends. Bony is an Australian half-caste, European and Aborigine, inheriting complementary talents from both sides; and as a policeman, finding it both rational and instinctive to keep a foot in each world.

In this story, Bony has interested himself in a murder in a rural and remote area of New South Wales, drawn thither by his seeing a trivial item in a crime-scene photograph, and recognizing it as an arcane clue. Bony wanders onto the scene as a stockman seeking a job, and is promptly arrested and set to working off his fine by painting the police-station fence. As usual, Bony's wonderful detection skills are on display,

Although we are not on Bony's home ground of the Queensland Outback, nevertheless this sparsely-peopled region dotted with sheep stations, and the remote village of Merino which is its hub, are nicely realized. The major geological formation nearby is a windswept ridge called the "Walls of China" (now in Mungo National Park):

... this extraordinary barrier lying athwart the bushlands in the southwest corner of the state of New South Wales, Australia. The colour of the country is reddish-brown, and upon this reddish-brown land the soft fingers of the wind built a wall of snow-white sand some twelve miles long, three quarters of a mile wide, and several hundred feet high. No on knows when the wind laboured so mightily to build the barrier, and no one knows who named it the Walls of China.

It's a lonely, beautiful formation: see these two spectacular photos of Walls of China by daylight and Walls of China by moonlight.

It is particularly in this deserted area that our detective most vividly and suspensefully goes hunting — and is hunted in turn.

The characterization of the villagers of Merino makes this a warmer-than-average Inspector Bonaparte story, with considerable thought by Arthur Upfield developing their diverse psychologies. But as always, it is Bony's bush-detective work, his mind and senses reading "the Book of the Bush", which is riveting:

... the hut faced toward the east across three miles of open country falling gently to the foot of the Walls of China. Here and there were giant red claypans, hard as cement and separated by narrow ridges of loose sand. Old man saltbush were scattered about the scene, and widely spaced water gutters, now dry, zigzagged slightly to the northeast to join a dry creek bordered by box trees.

What aroused Bony's interest was a peculiar mark made on a sand ridge separating two claypans. ...

Death of a Swagman is a worthy member of the Inspector Bonaparte adventures, a very good story: distinctive in approach, structure, cast, and landscape within this unique series, and a quite enjoyable mystery.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series
by Arthur W. Upfield

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