Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Wings Above the Diamantina

Arthur W. Upfield (1890-1964) was an English-born Australian writer of detective fiction who enjoyed great international success with his Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mysteries. The first of these appeared in the late 1920s and the last was published posthumously in 1966. Wings Above the Diamantina, published in 1936, is one of the better known titles.

Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is a half-Aboriginal half-white university-educated Queensland policeman. To solve his cases he uses standard police methods combined with his knowledge of tracking and Aboriginal lore and his intimate knowledge of the Outback.

Bony is an unorthodox policeman. As a member of the Queensland Police Force he must, in theory, accept whatever cases happen to be assigned to him. In practice things are rather different - if a case doesn’t interest him he declines it. Fortunately the Commissioner, the delightfully named Colonel Splendor, has long since give up trying to impose normal standards of discipline upon Bony. Bony gets results and that’s all that matters. 

Inspector Bonaparte also intensely dislikes being addressed as Sir or Inspector. He insists that everyone just call him Bony. As he explains it isn’t the rank of Inspector that he cares about, it’s the salary attached to it.

Wings Above the Diamantina has a crackerjack opening. Mr Nettlefold, The manager of the Coolibah Station in western Queensland, finds a red monoplane sitting in the middle of the dry Emu Lake. In the front cockpit is a young woman. She is alive but appears to be suffering from some form of total paralysis, unable even to speak. No-one in the district has ever set eyes on her before. The pilot’s cockpit is empty. The logical assumption is that the aircraft was forced down and the pilot went to get help. But there are no tracks at all leading away from the aircraft. The front cockpit is the passenger’s cockpit, with no controls. The girl therefore could not have landed the plane herself.

The monoplane had been stolen the night before from Captain Loveacre’s flying circus (a sort of barnstorming aerial operation).

The identity of the young woman is a complete mystery. Her condition does not improve. With help from the local doctor, a man named Knowles, Mr Nettlefold’s daughter Elizabeth volunteers to nurse the girl. An attempt is made to poison the unknown woman.

The subsequent mysterious destruction of the aeroplane adds to the puzzle. The devastation was much too violent to have been caused by the plane’s fuel tanks exploding.

Sergeant Cox, the police officer at the nearest town, Golden Dawn, is a sensible and methodical man but he knows this case is too big for him. He greets the arrival of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte with relief. 

This is a puzzling case but usually these are exactly the cases that Bony enjoys. This time though there is a much bigger problem - if Bony cannot find the solution to the mystery then the mysterious woman from the plane will die and time is running out. This aspect of the case sets up a thrilling race against time in the last hundred pages and this is the most impressive part of the book. Upfield handles this with consummate skill. Bony believes he is very very close to solving the mystery but it seems like everything is conspiring against him to make him lose the race for the girl’s life.

The book certainly has other very considerable strengths. Upfield spent twenty years in the Outback and his descriptions of this harsh, unforgiving but strangely fascinating land are absolutely first-class. Upfield didn’t just live in the Bush - he took a scientific interest in it and led several scientific expeditions. He knew the geography and the geology of the country and he had the ability to use this knowledge to bring his stories vividly to life. His extensive knowledge of traditional Aboriginal culture adds further intriguing touches.

There are also moments of light relief, especially those provide by Embley and Arriet,  the two pets of one of the Coolibah stockmen. Bony is informed that they’re quite tame but he’s not entirely reassured, given that Embley and Arriet are goannas and they’re both seven-and-a-half feet long.

The only minor flaws I can find in this novel are occasional moment of clunkiness in the dialogue and one or two incident that stretch credibility just a little, but then if the stretching of credibility bothers you you probably shouldn’t be reading golden age detective fiction in the first place.

I read a lot of Upfield’s novels when I was young and to a city-dwelling Australian (who had never been within hundreds of miles of the Outback) they were extraordinarily exotic. I can only imagine that they were even more exotic to non-Australians which undoubtedly explains much of their international success.

Wings Above the Diamantina contains some definite elements of the Impossible Crime sub-genre and the setting ensures that the explanation of these elements will be exotic as well.

Upfield doesn’t ignore the question of race but he doesn’t agonise over it either or succumb to the temptation to lecture the reader. At times Bony encounters some mild initial hostility due to his mixed-race background but he never makes an issue of it - he assumes that his competence and his charm and his natural good humour will quickly win people over and he’s invariably correct.

Upfield doesn’t worry too much about detailed characterisation. This is a mystery novel and in this genre such things are an unnecessary distraction. Dr Knowles though is a genuinely interesting character. He has his own aircraft and operates a kind of private flying doctor service. When he’s drunk he’s an excellent pilot. When he’s sober he’s a menace to aerial navigation. Luckily he’s nearly always drunk. Curiously enough he’s also a better doctor when he’s drunk.

Bony himself is an interesting variation on the maverick cop trope. He doesn’t rebel against authority. He’s much too easy-going to do that (and he does like his salary). He simply ignores any rules that irritate him, and he ignores them in such a good-humoured way that nobody ever seems to mind.

Wings Above the Diamantina has a wonderfully offbeat and exotic setting, an unusual detective, an intriguing setup and a classic golden age plot with ample quantities of twists and turns and red herrings. It all adds up to great entertainment. Highly recommended.


  1. As a non-Australian, I can confirm that they're more than just extraordinarily exotic to me. Even when the setting is a bit more domestic (e.g. An Author Bites the Dust).

    Your continent-size country is such a unique place, you've to wonder why Upfield has, as far as I know, been the only one to fully exploit it for a series of detective novels. Since his strong-suit were vivid descriptions of his stories settings, the backdrops often turned into characters of their own.

    A personal favorite remains the small desert settlement from Cake in the Hat Box, which has a growing halo of glass bottles (because it's not economical to return them back to civilization) and meteorites can be seen there at night streaking across the night sky.

    On top of all that, Upfield usually had very decent or even good plots. Not in the same league as Christie or Carr, but they were still very good.

    About Bony and authority, he's usually dispatched to far-flung corners of the country and often left to his own devices. So it's easy in his situation to sidestep or simply ignore official regulation and rules.

    Only exception I have found was in The Battling Prophet, in which he ignored direct orders and this nearly cost him his job (and his salary).

    Long, rambling comment short: I love Upfield.

    1. TC, it was your enthusiasm for Upfield that inspired me to start re-reading him.

  2. Fantastic book. Amazing solution based on fact, so not at all hard to swallow. This is one of my favorites in the Bony series. I also like the one in which the discovery of an unusual bird's nest in a tree sets him off to the correct solution. I think that one is SANDS OF WINDEE.

    1. Amazing solution based on fact, so not at all hard to swallow.

      I was a little concerned that he was going to resort to a bit of a cheat but I was very pleased that he managed to wrap up the solution so effectively without doing so.

  3. I already have too many books to read, and now I want to add Upfield's books. I did read a good number of them when I was younger but don't remember which ones, so I will look out for this one. The only one I have is Murder Down Under from 1937.

    1. The only one I have is Murder Down Under from 1937.

      I ordered a copy of that one yesterday!