To begin with I should probably apologise for the long wait for this review, though unsurprisingly seasonal festivities have played havoc with my usual reading speed. Hopefully the review will be the worth the wait though. This is only my third Upfield novel and he is an author I haven’t really touched upon much on the blog, except for a review of Wings Above Diamantina (1936) earlier this year.
The Bachelors of Broken Hill (1950) centres on a mining community, which although began life as a shanty town for silver lead prospectors, has now become a reasonably affluent place. A number of threads are begun at the opening of the story. Firstly there is the escape of mentally ill prisoner, the Great Scarby, a magician who was imprisoned for abduction. Secondly a burglar named Jimmy enters Broken Hill for a respite with his married sister. There are also two mysterious murders, with both victims being elderly bachelors who are bumped off with cyanide in very public places. Moreover, in each case there was a woman in the vicinity of the victim prior to their death, a woman who witnesses struggle to remember well and getting a clear description of her is a key part of the subsequent case. With the case floundering Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is drafted in for two weeks. Quietly confident at the beginning Bonaparte soon realises the difficulties he is up against. But he is not without ideas and soon employs a certain burglar and also a lightening speed cartoonist to help him. However Bonaparte is not quick enough to prevent further deaths, deaths which alarmingly seem to deviate from the killer profile generated and there is a high risk of Bonaparte being taken off the case, an acknowledgement of failure Bonaparte needs to avoid at all costs.
With a mixed race detective it is not surprising that race and racial attitudes come up in the book. Although perhaps more of a background issue in this story, the moments where this theme arise are quite illuminating in revealing something of Bonaparte’s character and his precarious position in society. From the beginning Bonaparte is shown as someone who doesn’t fit into the police force system, which he suggests himself when he describes himself as ‘a tortoise’ and that ‘for twenty years [his] superiors have tried their hardest to turn [him] into a hare.’ Bonaparte is shown as scornful of red tape and of following police procedure completely and he often doesn’t obey his superior’s orders, a situation he gets away with due to his unblemished success rate. This however leads up to his quite big fear of failure, as his identity and job security rests on this success rate and also probably reduces the racial prejudice he receives. For example mid-way through the book the story pauses to consider what would happen if he failed to solve this case. The answer is,
‘Only scorn, only contempt for his mid-race. No longer any recognition for his achievements. For him one failure wiped out all successes: for the full-white, one success wiped out all failures.’
An answer which highlights the double standard in place and partially explains Bonaparte’s determination in solving his cases: ‘I always finish a race, always finalise the case I consent to take up.’
I wouldn’t say Upfield always gets it right when it comes to depicting a mixed race character as there was one questionable moment when Bonaparte says that:
‘I am unique because I stand midway between the white and black races, having all the virtues of the white race and very few vices of the black race.’
The dichotomy raised in this line is troubling, reminding me a little of pro-white/English stance found in Roger East’s Twenty Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935). Yet having only read three of the Bonaparte mysteries it is hard to pin down exactly what Upfield’s views were on race. Furthermore, I did notice at the start of the book when the origins of the town Broken Hill are gone into, that the white settlers are more like invaders exploiting a natural resource shown to them by aborigines. But again this is quite a subtle aspect of the opening pages and it is hard to define how much of a point Upfield was trying to make.
I enjoyed the writing style as ever in this book, as Upfield tells a story well and the characterisation and dialogue are up to his usual standards. In particular I liked how the witnesses, who are called on a lot in this book, pick out social patterns and behaviours in the woman they briefly saw and the assumptions they make on the back of them. I think the main issue to be had with this book is that due to the nature of the case the reader is limited to how involved they can get, as like the detectives they lack certain pieces of information, which no doubt comes from the open set of suspects the crimes have. But considering how much focus is put on trying to create a reliable portrait/description of the mysterious woman, I think Upfield does an adept job at maintaining pace and interest.