The Devil's Steps
by Arthur W. Upfield

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mystery

Doubleday: New York, 1946

Angus & Robertson: Sydney, 1965

256 pages February 2004


I must say at once that there is nothing Satanic about "the devil's steps" in Arthur W. Upfield's mystery novel The Devil's Steps. The term is a figure of speech. While there are one or two fantastic bits in the story, it is a very down-to-earth mystery in the long-running 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 natural and useful to keep a foot in each world.

So what are "the devil's steps"? I can't say much without giving away too much of the plot, but here's an item which may pique your curiosity. Ninety years earlier and half a world away in Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau in his Journal for 18 February 1855 discusses an odd behavior of wintertime footprints:

After a thaw old tracks in the snow, from [intaglio or inset, become high relief]. The snow which was originally compressed and hardened beneath the feet, — also, perhaps, by the influence of the sun and maybe rain, — being the last to melt, becomes protuberant, the highest part and most lasting. That part of the snow compressed and solidified under the feet remains nearly at the same level. The track becomes a raised almost icy type. How enduring these trails! How nature clings to these types. The track even of small animals like a skunk will outlast a considerable thaw.

Inspector Bonaparte has an odd and disconcerting clue, or perhaps distraction, in the form of uncanny footprints found on a hotel lawn. Bony and Thoreau, each with a fine eye for Nature's details, would appreciate each other's observations; and more so, the discerning eye that lifts marks into meaning.

The Devil's Steps was published in 1946, about one-third along the progression of Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte novels. Set in and around a fairly civilized country chalet, it doesn't have the distinctive Queensland Outback flavor of the best of the books. Nevertheless, it has Bony, which is plenty.

More significant is the publication date, right after World War II. Wartime spying and sabotage by the Axis in Australia, or efforts and counter-efforts in those lines, lurk in the background.

Wideview Chalet is the centerpiece of the locale of The Devil's Steps. The novel isn't quite a hotel-mystery, since the personnel of lodgers, victims, suspects, and police is an open list rather than a fixed group which is boundaried early on. Upfield takes the opportunity to share a poetic feel for this landscape, the chalet grounds and the lovely long mountain view, both greener than Bony is accustomed to in the Outback. The best of the supporting characters is Bisker, the chalet grounds keeper.

A good mystery, a good novel. In plot it stands alone and can be read independently; but a new reader of the series first should venture into Inspector Bonaparte's mind and character on his home tracking grounds of the dry Outback.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series
by Arthur W. Upfield

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