Confusions of Racial Identity in Arthur W. Upfield's Detective Fiction

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

In novels, such as Sands of Windee, featuring Detective Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonapoarte, Arthur W. Upfield creates a hero who surpasses the best of both European and Aborigine, taking the finest qualities from each. But even as he creates his racially hybrid super detective, Upfield grants superiority to Europeans as if his audience will automatically assume such to be the case. This automatic assumption that the European side of Bony's nature must be superior appears in his physical appearance. When Sergeant Morris first encounters him, he "looked into a ruddy-brown face made up of the sharp features of the Saxon; he gazed into the wide open, fearless blue eyes of the Nordic" (3). As this automatically granting aesthetic superiority to the people of Northern Europe suggests, Upfield accepts, apparently without question, race as a biological as well as a social and political reality. Despite the fact that his lovingly created Bony apperars a synthesis of the best of both Caucasian and Aborigine, the narrator and hero nonetheless both acknowledge superiority of white over black, European over indigene, as a given without any explanation -- or any support from the text.

The matter is somewhat complicated, because at the same time he pronounces racial stereotypes, Upfield seems to espouse a kind of geographical determinism that weakens the separation of apparently opposed groups. This geographical determinism derives from the belief that simply living in the outback of Australia creates a particular kind of individual -- the nomad -- so that black and white are close here. Thus in Body at Madmen's bend, the reader learns that

The ten swagmen taken on by Mrs. Crosgrove elected to remain at the shearer's quarters instead of moving to the men's quarters. They were united by the tenuous bond of the track, bring inluenced by the same spiritual power as the native aborigines. They were much closer to the secret nature of this land than is the average employee on stations [large sheep farms], some of whom "stay put" for years. [125]

As Bony himself explains to Miss Stanton in Sands of Windee, despite his western education, he has always felt the draw of the bush, the wilder parts of Australia:

"You see, had I been a half-caste Chinaman, or a half-caste anything else, I should not have felt the call of the bush as I did and do. A lot of white, people, even in the Australian cities, know very little about the Australian native, and nothing whatever of the cause of his being the happy nomad that he is. White people, some of whom are quite intelligent, imagine it to be possible to throw the mantle of the white man's civilization about a native or a half-native and keep it there. I have never known a half-caste, even with the educational attainments I possess, remain all his life in a city among white people. . . . You yourself, having been born in the bush, might be able to name my want."

"Well, it is, hard to describe it, Bony, unless we name it the Call of the Bush. I have felt that call when I was at college and during the time I was in England with Dad."

"That is it, Miss Stanton. You were born in the bush, and have felt the call. How much more plainly most I have heard that call with the blood of countless nomadic ancestors in my veins I left Sydney when I was twenty-two and went back to North Queensland, where I first saw the light. And my body craved for complete freedom from the white man's clothes. I wanted to go ahunting as my mother's father had hunted, and I wanted to eat flesh, raw flesh, and then lie down in the shade and go to sleep, fed full and feeling the wind play over my naked skin." [Sands of Windee, 84-85]

Quite late in this novel, which introduces his super-sleuth, Upfield pauses to relate the history of Bony's encounter with the problems of racial identity. The first thing to note is that Upfield presents his protagonist accepting without question the superiority of lighter skin: "He had been born with white Man's blood in him and, as is, sometimes the case, a skin as white as his father's. From an early age he had felt his superiority over the other little boys at the mission station, most of whom were black, or of that dark putty colour there is no mistaking." Shortly after he and a young white girl fall in love when Bony is eighteen, his racially permeated world begins to fall apart -- or rather trap him:

With the inevitability of fate, his long-dead, black mother claimed him from the grave, claimed him and held him. He was bathing with several companions one afternoon, and one of them remarked how peculiar it was that his legs were darker in colour than the upper part of his body. The horror, the agony, which succeeded, that afternoon! The realization, the knowledge that, after all, when he had been so certain that the black strain in him would never show, it was at last asserting itself!

His soul in torment, lie, told the girl of his mixed ancestry. At first she would not believe it. To her honour, however, she clung to him for a year; but at, when the colour mark had crept up his body and his face, she had to believe. Even so she would wed Bony, had he permitted it. [Sands of Windee]

I have no idea if such a late transformation of a fair-skinned person into a very dark-skinned one is even possible -- it certainly seems hokum to me -- but it is odd, even bizarre, that Bony, who himself came from an interracial marriage, won't marry the willing girl. Apparently, she proves herself honorable by refusing to break their engagement just because he has a non-white heritage, whereas he, in contrast, proves his honorability by breaking the engagement. What is so bizarre about his decision is that nothing in the novel in any way establishes the racial superiority of white Australians other than the assertion that Bony was "always . . . acutely aware of his inferiority to the full-blooded white man." In the next clause of the same sentence, the reader learns that he "excelled the white man in one thing: knowledge; he equalled the white man in one other thing: honour" (227). Given the assertion that he surpasses the white man's knowledge and equals him in honour, I can't perceive in what manner Bony is supposely inferior to, say, his white father. This is one of several points of incoherence -- obvious gaps in an argument about race -- at which Upfield simply assumes that the reader will agree with broadly accepted views of race, which to us appear as racial prejudice. Unless of course he wishes us to reject received wisdom and question his statements . . . . Certainly throughout the rest of the novel, which is set in the late 1920s, Bony, who never seems to encounter serious racial prejudice, continually wins the admiration of the other characters and always remains in control.


Upfield, Arthur W. Body at Madmen's bend. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1963.

Upfield, Arthur W. Sands of Windee. Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson, 1958.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Arthur W. Upfield

Last modified 21 July 2003