Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt: Plane
While touring their cattle station, Coolibah in Queensland Australia, John and Elizabeth Nettlefold, father and daughter come across an unusual site, a red monoplane. What makes this even more out of ordinary is that there is a girl passenger who is paralysed and no evidence there was any pilot. Some parts of the mystery are quickly resolve, with the plane being identified as the one Captain Loveacre had stolen from him. What is not so easy to solve is who the girl is and what is causing her complete paralysis? The situation becomes more complex and deadly when the plane is set on fire during the night as well as there being an attempt to poison the helpless girl. Initially Sergeant Cox is called on to solve the case, but he soon sees he is out of his depth and Upfield’s series’ sleuth, Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) (half white, half aborigine) is brought in, to unravel the mystery.
Due to Bony’s mixed race status, race is an issue which pervades the narrative, though in this particular novel, it is not the dominant theme. Bony seems to gain special status in regards to how the other characters perceive him, which is partially influenced by his success as a detective and partially due to his charm and magnetism of personality. For example when Sergeant Cox first sees him, unaware of who he really is, Cox mentally categorises him as a ‘half-caste.’ His impressions radically change though when he finds out who he is. Moreover, Elizabeth is ‘hostile yet to the fact of his admittance to her home as an equal’ when he first arrives at her house, but under his charm this soon changes. Other characters do not get such treatment with workhands being referred to as ‘the two blacks.’ Furthermore, even characters who seem less bigoted in their attitudes toward race, utilise language which emphasises difference and separation:
‘Still, Cox and I are white men having the white man’s deficiencies…’
However, in this particular I don’t think the plight and obstacles aborigine characters is directly discussed, although there are subtle glimpses in the text such as it being mentioned that aborigines are not allowed to be served in bars.
Bony’s detective style also reflects his dual identity, as he employs conventional police methods, alongside the skills in tracking he learnt from his aboriginal mother. He is also open to aboriginal medicine and beliefs and involving them in solving his cases. Interestingly it is mentioned in this book that a chieftain was prepared to give Bony all his secrets and wisdom in exchange for Bony promising to become the leader of the chieftain’s tribe once he dies. But Bony refuses saying that he cannot abandon his non-aborigine half and at points in the book his two halves do create a tension within him. However, Bony also has features which are common to British fictional police detectives such as DI Frost, such as his abhorrence of red tape and his resistance to authority:
‘His defiance of authority and lack of respect for superiors never failed to create horror, and this horror never failed to amuse him.’
In addition, Bony is also aligned to an extent by Upfield, with the “Great Detective” tradition, describing him as ‘hous[ing] the gifts and remarkably few vices of both races between which he stood halfway’.
The case includes interesting characters such as Doctor Knowles, who flies to his patients (reminding non-Australian readers of the vastness of the country) drunk, as that is how he flies best, only crashing when sober. Although like many of the characters there is more than that meets the eye with Knowles, with there being a reason behind his drinking and the fact that when he first saw the paralysed girl he looked shocked, yet denied all knowledge of knowing her. Equally even seemingly non-descript characters such as Ted Sharp, the boss stockman appears to have secrets to hide. I enjoyed the character Elizabeth, as compared to many female characters in Golden Age mysteries she is an active woman who enjoys being busy and having a purpose.
There is a sense of urgency in solving the case quickly, as the paralysed girl becomes weaker and weaker, with the doctors being unable to identify what is causing her paralysis, though they think it must be caused by some kind of drug. Finding the killer appears to be the only solution. In a way this mystery although set in a vast space actually has a closed set of suspects, which is hinted at when the dogs do not bark at night when the poison attempt is made (a Holmesian nod). I enjoyed the setting of the story in the Australian outback, as the natural surroundings are effectively incorporated into the plot including dramatic phenomena such as sandstorms and flooding, which add an extra level of excitement to Bony’s investigation.
Although I think some parts of the book (which are all minor to the readers’ comprehension and enjoyment of the story) are possibly inaccurate, I think this is a good read with a strong mystery at its centre. I’m not sure readers are expected to figure the solution out in its entirety due to them probably lacking certain knowledge, but I thought the solution a good one. A bit like Georgette Heyer, the good guys inevitably get their happy endings at the novel’s close, but in a way more suiting to the Australian outback and Bony, as opposed to an English country house drawing room. I would recommend this “Bony” novel to both novice and old readers of Upfield’s work.