Monday, February 11, 2013

Obscure Gems of Yesterday

I began this year searching for mysteries that should have been classics but somehow faded into the background.  I was interested in solid detective fiction - grade A, Dashiell Hammett-quality gumshoe yarns.  And that isn’t easy to come by.

Fortunately, I have friends in high places, and by high places, I mean bookstores.  My friend Bill Rozell, owner of Scrooge & Marley Booksellers, pointed me in the right direction.

And by the way, bookstore owners know a hell of a lot about books, which is something we don’t often think about when we hit that “Add to Cart” button.  An algorithm can’t always be trusted to provide a good recommendation.

And so I began reading the novels of Arthur Upfield, an Australian writer of detective fiction featuring the half-Aborigine Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland Police Force.

Writing his novels in the 1930s through the 1950s, Upfield is a man of his times, using the cadences and norms of his time.  I can’t help but cringe when 'Bony,' as the protagonist calls himself, pronounces himself unique, “standing midway between the white and black races, having all the virtues of the white race and very few vices of the black race.”  Sure, he's deliberately disarming his audience, but it comes at a high price.

Reluctant as I am to let something like that slide, I read on, and I’m glad I did because Bony is a wonderful protagonist, greatly loved by his author.  And it became clear, the more I read, that Upfield was drawing the reader to understand that it was Bony’s aboriginal culture and mindset that made him effective, made him brilliant.

“I am naturally impatient of red tape and regulations which are apt to bring on gastric trouble,” Bony tells his audience in The Bachelors of Broken Hill.  “I never hurry in my hunt for a murderer, but I never delay my approach.”

As he moves throughout the Australian outback, Boney routinely encounters resistance from police and civilians alike who are taken aback by this anomaly, this “half-caste” in the the language of the books and the time.  But it’s this distance, this otherness, that makes Bony effective.  He approaches phenomena from a slightly different viewpoint than everyone else, including the killers he tracks and inevitably finds.

At the end of each book, the reader is both impressed and charmed.  And that is Upfield’s gift - you can’t help but like Bony.  Writing at a time and place when race was a difficult concept (and when and where has it ever not been?) Upfield broke some barriers with a powerful gentle narrative that resonates even today.

I’d recommend starting with The Bone is Pointed and The Bachelors of Broken Hill.

So what nearly-forgotten gems can you reintroduce to polite society?

And if you’re looking for obscure books, check out the good folks at Scrooge & Marley Booksellers -


Jewel Amethyst said...

I'm not an avid reader of detective stories, but you just about convinced me to read one of those books.

Sometimes when I read books written decades ago before certain terms became politically incorrect, I cringe. But we do have to be aware that what was Kosher a few decades ago may not be Kosher today and vice versa. Books afterall reflect the time, not necessarily in which they depict, but the time in which they are written.

William Doonan said...

That's a great point, Jewel. It would be very hard to read Mark Twain with a straight face unless we were willing to give him some temporal wiggle room.

Liane Spicer said...

William! Forgive me for squealing, but my sister and I discovered Bony in the public library as children and he has been one of our great literary loves ever since. Just last year it occurred to me that I should collect those old books, and I was tickled to find them on Amazon. So glad you found Arthur Upfield's gems.

My lifelong desire to visit Australia is a side effect of having read the Bony sagas. My enthusiasm abated over the years as I learned more about the Australian xenophobia, especially toward people of colour.

(The books are still on my wish list as I have an ongoing space problem, but I will get them!)

There's a rather vulgar Australian song (77% by The Herd) written in protest of that country's official response to a shipwreck involving non-white refugees. At least not all Australians are bigoted twats.

Another oldie but goodie mystery writer? (Not as old as Upfield, though...) Paula Gosling. I recommend Zero Trap and A Running Duck. Oh, and Dick Francis is fun too.

William Doonan said...

That's so cool, Liane. I'm glad to hear that you also found Bony appealing. I also came across a 1970s Australian TV series based on Upfield's novels called, predictably enough - Bony. I'm going to find the DVDs!