by William R. Loeser

ARTHUR W. UPFIELD – An Author Bites the Dust.

ARTHUR W. UPFIELD An Author Bites the Dust

Angus & Robertson, Australia, hardcover, 1948. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hc, 1948. Many reprint editions, both hardcover and soft, including Angus & Robertson, UK-Australia, hc, 1967; and Scribner’s, US, ppbk, August 1987 (both shown).

   The most under-rated writer of detective fiction is certainly Arthur Upfield. His books provide levels of characterization and description of places exceptional in the mystery. Most importantly, his half-aborigine Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte can and does detect.

ARTHUR W. UPFIELD An Author Bites the Dust

   Moreover, Mr. Upfield did not, to my knowledge, write a bad book. For the first few chapters, though, of An Author Bites the Dust, I thought he had; for Mr. Upfield had difficulty breathing life into the dry husks of the coterie of colonial litterateurs led by the soon-to-die Mervyn Blake, who see their purpose in life as shaping the future of Australian literature.

   Fortunately, other characters appear and Bonaparte is able through questioning to make some of the remaining writers come to life. It turns out the unenviable Blake met his death from poisoning by coffin dust (i.e. ptomaine spores latent in the dust we all become — would it work?) for a motive so well-wrought, all-encompassing, and completely literary that description would take pages.

   Let my “fair play” in not disclosing the murderer serve as an additional incentive for those of you who have not, to read this excellent book. Cat fanciers will want to know that the clue that starts Bony on the path to success is delivered to him by a cat.

ARTHUR W. UPFIELD An Author Bites the Dust

   Other thoughts: I wonder if the mystery writer Clarence B. Bagshott who appears here in a minor role was an intended or sub-conscious self-portrayal of the author? I wonder also if the American compositor and proofreader thought the “De Cameron” (p. 18) was a clan of Scots who emigrated to France?

   Most of all, I wonder — as I’ve wondered while reading each of Mr. Upfield’s books — how a half-caste named Napoleon Bonaparte could move through the generally upper-middle-class society of Australia of the 1930’s and 40’s with so few comments about his name (one here) and without a snub due to his ancestry (In this book he even poses briefly as a South African (!) journalist.)

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 3, No. 2, Mar-Apr 1979       (very slightly revised)..