The Will of the Tribe (1962) – Arthur Upfield
I’d like to welcome Beth Kanell, one of my fellow authors from the brand new e-book 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror, 52 Authors Look Back. Beth is stopping by as part of the 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror Blog Tour. And I’m guest blogging today, about professors as detectives, on Beth’s blog too:
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Now on to Beth’s review of The Will of the Tribe!
Although the dates of his life, 1888-1964, almost coincide with those of Agatha Christie, 1890-1976, “classic” mystery lists rarely mention Arthur William Upfield. Eldest of five sons, he was a prankster and seen as a trouble maker, and his own father exiled him to Australia at the age of 22 to grow up into being a respectable farmer. Instead, he found his way to the Outback and fell in love with what he saw as “the real Australia.” His biographer, Ray B. Browne, saw him as “lured” by “the call of the bush.”
In The Will of the Tribe, his 32nd book – his career would span 34 of them – Upfield’s protagonist, the “half-caste” Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, whose father was European and mother “aborigine” (“abo”), must resolve a murder. He is under unusual orders for the case: The “powers that be” don’t care who killed the man found in Wolf Creek Meteor Crater, and they already know his identity (but won’t tell Bony). On the other hand, they insist that the Inspector find out how the man arrived there without being “telegraphed” among the local farmers and bush stations, and discover what he’d been doing. Making the case yet more complicated, when Bony is called in, it’s already been 14 weeks since the body was discovered.
But Bony’s investigation takes a direction much different from what any other police or local authority would have taken: “The man who could think like an aborigine and reason like a white man proceeded to test the theory that the dead man had been brought over the wall at its lowest point.” Soon he finds where the body had entered the crater – and, more important, strands of Hessian from the cloth used to wrap the boots of those carrying the body, to prevent footprints. In this discovery, Bony moves far ahead of others, as he can definitely narrow the body’s arrival to the action white men. In a landscape where mischief is routinely blamed on “wild blacks” and others seen as only partly civilized, Bony’s just cleard most of the local population of at least the transport phase of the crime.
But it will take reasoning like a native to grasp why the meteor crater would be chosen as the body dump; why the aborigines are stubbornly refusing to disclose anything about the victim or crime, when it’s clear that nothing happens in the region without their attention; and finally, why the killing took place at all. In the process, he confronts “the will of the Tribe”: that powerful force of community and conformity that demands allegiance from aborigines, even as they, like Bony himself, find the white man’s world of increasing concern to them.
What I most enjoy about The Will of the Tribe is the contrast between Upfield’s portrayal of racism and its role in crime and crime solving, and the books now coming out of Africa, where racism and colonialism also dovetailed. Bony is more energetic and more willing to manipulate a situation than, say, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot – yet I can picture the two detectives meeting on a train and enjoying each other’s insistence that broad-based knowledge of cultures and people is what it takes to solve a crime.
Beth Kanell is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and makes up half of Kingdom Books, the mystery collectors’ haven she and her husband Dave provide in Vermont. Author of two “young adult” mysteries set in her neighborhood, she is bringing out a third one, Cold Midnight, in November 2012 and is writing a “Vermont Nancy Drew” type series featuring teen sleuth Felicity “Lucky” Franklin. Follow her adventures at
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