Beat Not the Bones (1952) by Charlotte Jay

This was Xavier’s Lechard second recommendation to me earlier this year, you can read about his first recommendation here. Although this title comes from Shakespeare’s Love Labour’s Lost, this book is set in Marapai in New Guinea and was written by an Australian author. This was her second novel and it won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1954. Like yesterday’s read, Jay does not have a conventional approach to mystery/suspense writing.

The book begins by highlighting the tensions in Marapai, between native people and Western interlopers, who often aim to tame the place. Yet this aim is shown as a foolhardy one from the get go. The personified town has a dual nature, it is ‘light-hearted, yet ‘savage;’ ‘feckless and gay,’ yet ‘sinister’ and I would go so far as to say that it is the locality and the climate itself which is perhaps the unspoken of killer in the story, as through the narrative reveals a catalogue of victims, western inhabitants who have not been able to acclimatise and cope with the radically different environment, invariably mentally and physically deteriorating into alcoholism, loose living, madness and crime.

With this introduction we then move onto Alfred Jobe, an unsavoury character who goes to see the Department of Surveys, the director, Trevor Nyall in particular. His story is, is that he has found some gold outside of the existing Territory, in a village called Eola. He claims that the inhabitants gave it to him willing and that therefore it is of little interest to him. However, David Warwick, the head of the Department for Cultural Developments disagrees, believing that it is valuable to them and that they need to be protected from Western exploitation. Jobe is less than thrilled by this and swears revenge on David, who he thinks has it in for him, given his past criminal record against natives.

The narrative then jumps ahead to the arrival of David’s much younger wife, Stella. Yet hers is not to be happy welcome in New Guinea. Her father has died suddenly and so has her husband, as on returning from his own trip to Eola, it seems that David committed suicide and it is suggested this is because of his big debts. Stella though has her reasons for believing this is not the case and that her husband’s death was murder. Stella makes herself even less popular by her determined plan to find out the truth, as those around her are prepared to let sleeping dogs lie, for a variety of reasons. She is particularly at loggerheads with Trevor’s brother, Anthony – yet as they say hate can be very close to love… The story culminates in Stella’s own trip to Eola, a trip which she has every reason to fear she will not come back from, yet in fact the biggest thing she and the reader should be scared of, is what she will find when she gets there… In the end no one can be seen as guiltless, not even those who want to uncover the truth.

Overall Thoughts

Given the setting it is not unexpected that cultural and racial relations is an intrinsic part of the book. In his review of this book, Anthony Boucher wrote that, ‘her subtle picture of the interaction of an ‘advanced’ and a primitive race is exquisitely detailed.’ The word advanced is quote marked appropriately, as I think Jay’s depiction of the Western presence in New Guinea is far from glowing and its’ supposed superiority is certainly questioned. Understandably therefore racism terminology is present in the book, but I would not say it remains unchallenged. I was interested in how the Western characters saw their role in New Guinea. Some such as Nyall had a more patronising perception of the native population: ‘We’re here to guide and guard, not to understand. Only children can understand children, and we aren’t children any longer.’ He also goes onto say that ‘We must not only teach them from scratch our western ideas of law and religion, we must drag them, as it were, in a few years, over aeons of time.’ Yet intriguingly he is ready to admit that there is ‘so much that we have done has been wrong.’ There is definitely an awareness in this book that the Western powers have taken a wrong approach towards the island’s inhabitants. There is also an awareness that one of the key problems is that this sort of job position attracts the greedy and the corrupt, who are only interested in how much money they can make from it.

It is no wonder that one character, whose idealism has been stamped out of him due to guilt over an error which cost many lives, has become abnormally, possibly even pathetically passive in life. Whilst his idea that those native to New Guinea do not need to be “reformed” and should be allowed to live their lives how they want to, is not a bad one, his passivity is so endemic in his thinking that he is unable to act against criminal behaviour. This character could have easily been made into a stereotypical romantic heroic male lead for Stella, but it is interesting that Jay pulls away from this decision, perhaps showing Stella to be the stronger character in some ways.

However, despite Stella becoming a stronger and stronger character in the book as the plot unfolds, I weirdly did not find she had much impact on me, which was strange, for me anyways. She comes into the book with a great deal of naivety and it takes a while for her to unpack and dismantle the black and white responses she has towards other people. But again the turmoil and the gravity of all of this did not come leaping off the page at me. Perhaps in some ways this might due to the unusual emotional vibes she gives off. Her search for truth into David’s death is not borne out of love and grief, but is more of a cold and chilling fanaticism and near the end of the book Stella herself sees it all as a form of ‘rebellion’. I want to say there was something inhuman about her, but I am not sure this is the right word. I may have to remain puzzled by Stella.

Thankfully the remaining characters were not puzzling in this way, though they were in the main vividly crafted and therefore engaging and compelling in their own ways. There is a decidedly chilling and very fitting ending to the book, Imperialism suffice to say does not come up smelling of roses, and the strange sort of justice achieved was also appropriate in my opinion.

Purists may find not enjoy the more adventure themed angle of the story, but for those who are always keen to experience some new and different in their reading, I’d definitely recommend this one, as there is a lot to interest readers, from its setting to its increasingly chilling atmosphere.

I’ll leave you with a final word on this book from Boucher:

‘As to the beautifully deft plot I can best quote Charlotte Armstrong’s comments “She pulls off something that so often fails – works you up to the revelation of a horrible secret, and the secret turns out to be the horrible surprise you hoped it would be.’

[Little baffled by this, as a) I did not envisage that ending and b) even if I had I don’t think I would have hoped for it. Maybe it’s just me.]

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Won an award

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5 comments

  1. I said on the Dram of Poison thread that that book and this one had nothing in common but for their experimental nature, but I overlooked another notable feature that is no less remarkable: the absence or near-absence of any official police intervention. The characters are very much on their own, which to me is the essence of suspense fiction.

    According to the foreword to my edition of Beat Not the Bones Jay chose not to have police interfere for practical rather than dramaturgical reasons: She was not familiar with police procedures and was in no mood for research. The only other book of hers that I read, A Hank of Hair, has some cops meddling in in the end but they don’t play any pivotal role in the plot.

    Looking back on my choice of both books as my best 2000 reads I think their unorthodoxy was part of their appeal to me; they challenged and changed my already quite loose notions of what a mystery novel can be. Since then most of my “best reads” have been books that “push the envelope” in some way or another. I could have served on an Edgar committee in the Fifties! 😉 That’s why I’m always a little puzzled when I’m said to be a Golden Age purist or what-have-you. I’m much more of a modernist than I’m given credit for! 🙂

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    • Hereto you shall never be pigeonholed ever again! Not that I’ve ever see you as a GAD ultra purist. Like you I enjoy trying books which seek to do something different. I think police figures in this book wouldn’t have fitted very well with what she was trying to do. They would only have to add to the corruption or take attention away from Stella. I think you could say that both Jay and Armstrong’s are both about consequences as well. Thanks again for all your recommendations. Definitely giving me some unusual and enjoyable reading fodder.

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  2. I thought this was a marvellous book, I was very impressed with it when I read it a couple of years ago. (As there isn’t much about it online, I will take the liberty of including a link to my post
    https://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/beat-not-bones-by-charlotte-jay.html )
    It seemed to me, as Xavier says, a very different kind of a book, an attempt to do something serious and interesting. It has really stuck in my mind ever since – I keep meaning to read something else by her.

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      • Neither had I. Moira’s review pretty well sums up my feelings about this book. I’d add that part of what makes this book so special to me, and I guess to Moira too, is how well the setting, the plot and the characters blend together: You can’t imagine that story happening anywhere else nor to anyone else.

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