Part one of a two part series
IT was 50 years ago this month that Arthur Upfield, author of Australian crime mystery novels, died at his Bowral home.
World-famous for Detective-Inspector Napoleon 'Bony' Bonaparte stories, Upfield died on 12 February 1964, aged in his seventies and after being ill for several months.
For those unfamiliar with his enigmatic life story, a brief overview is presented here along with a glimpse of his last years in Bowral.
Named William Arthur, he was born in 1888 or 1890 at Gosport in Hampshire, England. Not showing an interest in passing exams or the family drapery business, he was shipped off by his father to Adelaide in 1910. Full of visions of the great outback, he landed a boundary rider job at Wilcannia and went on to spend more than 20 years as a wandering bush worker who drove cattle, trapped rabbits, gouged opal and cooked for shearers. He was a typical hard working, hard drinking, hard swearing Australian bushman - except he was an Englishman with a passion for literature.
He joined the AIF after the outbreak of WWI and, before heading off to the Middle East in late 1915, married Anne Douglas in Melbourne. During the war he wrote and sold short stories set in the Australian outback to English magazines.
After his return to Australia, with his marriage a failure although they had a son, Arthur went back to wandering the bush, training camels and for a time patrolling the rabbit-proof fence in WA. He took up writing again, turning to the popular genre of crime fiction.
His first novel was The Barrakee Mystery (London, 1929) which introduced the character 'Bony', a part-Aboriginal sleuth. Arthur claimed that 'Bony' was based on a real person and good friend who had graduated from Queensland University, a wise man and a skilled tracker.
Further novels followed and, all told, he wrote 28 books in the 'Bony' series that were published in Britain and America and other countries, where the mystery novel was an established form of literature, including translations for Germany, South America, Spain, Holland, Denmark and Japan.
He also wrote six published novels without Bony, two non-fiction books and about 250 short stories. The Bony novels were serialised in magazines and on radio, yet it rankled him that Australian literary circles did not acknowledge him as a creative artist.
In 1939 he suspended writing to serve with military intelligence in Australia as a censor during World War II, to resume again in 1944, averaging one Bony novel a year.
When Doubleday (New York) republished The Mystery of Swordfish Reef in 1943, it sold 22,000 copies and Arthur became a major figure in international crime fiction, the first foreigner to be a full member of the Mystery Writers of America.
His Australian Dictionary of Biography entry describes him as a crusty man who appeared slight, wiry, buttoned up and outwardly irascible, with hazel eyes, weather-beaten face, grizzled hair, ears like jug handles and a glass of whisky in his hand.
He became familiar with Aboriginal lore and acquired considerable insight into the mystical spirit of nature. His plots are interwoven with such themes. Presenting himself as 'a story teller first and last', he claimed 'I'm not a literary figure and don't want to be'.
In November 1957 Arthur Upfield moved to Bowral with his beloved companion, the widow Jessica Hawke (nee Uren). He had lived with her and her son Donald since 1946.
Arthur bought a three-bedroomed brick house in Jasmine Street, Bowral and there he wrote Bony and the Mouse and Bony and the Kelly Gang. These included local settings - one of the characters goes shopping in Bowral and reference is made to the lights of Wollongong and Kiama.
Arthur was described by a local newspaper in 1961 as youthful-looking, 'tall and straight, with lively hazel eyes snared in a web of laughter lines', who claimed that he 'drinks six cups of tea and smokes ten cigarettes before breakfast'. He also admitted to 'crummy spelling', a legacy of his neglected English school studies, but once Jessica took on the correcting he was no longer tied to a dictionary.
An influenza epidemic during the winter of 1962 laid low Arthur, Jessica, two of Bowral's three doctors and half the town's population. The hospital was full and no nurse could call on Arthur and Jessica so for six days they survived on Scotch Whisky and warm water, until a medico was able to come to their bedside.
Yet there was still fight in him.
To be continued
This article compiled by PHILIP MORTON is sourced from the archives of Berrima District Historical & Family History Society, Bowral Rd, Mittagong. Phone 4872 2169.
Email bdhsarchives@gmail. com. Web: berrimadistrict historicalsociety.org.au