|Vintage Pulp||Aug 25 2021|
Upfield's franchise character is never quite fleshed out.
Bony and the White Savage, for which you see a Pan Books cover above, has as its central character a half aborigine detective named Napoleon Bonaparte—Bony for short. The idea of this person made us think immediately of Ed Lacy's creation Toussaint Marcus Moore, considered to be the first African American detective in literature. But Upfield may have been first to create a black detective of any nationality—that is if we accept being half black ethnically as being fully black culturally. It's certainly that way in the U.S., as we've talked about before. Upfield created his Bony character and first published him way back in 1929, almost thirty years before Lacy, and the above installment of what was a long running series of Bony novels is from 1964 and sees the hero on the trail of a rapist and overall hellion who's holed up somewhere in the wild crags of the southwestern Australian coast.
Good premise, but in short, our hopes that this book would be something akin to Ed Lacy were misplaced. The way it's written, Bony being half aborigine is wasted—which is to say it impacts nothing and nobody mentions it. That approach might be commendable from a purely fictional perspective, but is it realistic? We've lived outside the U.S. for a long time, so we understand—trust us, we understand—that compared to the rest of the world Americans tend to overdo things. Like, everything. So Upfield would definitely be more subtle than Ed Lacy, who made the color of his Toussaint character central, but Upfield veers pretty far in the other direction, presenting a colorblind outback we know for a fact doesn't exist today. Was it colorblind back then? We doubt it, but Australian aborigines have recessive genes for blonde hair and blue eyes, so Bony might have fit in physically a lot better than we imagine.
But let's set that aside, because this is fiction, and a writer can do anything he or she wants. At least that's what we think. They're required to pull it off, though. Purely in terms of the plot, we had pretty high expectations here and they went unmet. Despite the exotic setting, interesting set-up, the unusual hero, and the fearsome antagonist, Bony and the White Savage isn't special. And we were really looking forward to reading an entire series of Down Under adventures, with all its local quirks and idiosyncrasies. But you know us by now. We're tenacious. This particular book, which was the only one available to us, is number twenty-six in the Bonaparte series. We're going to try again. We suspect that the qualities we anticipated are in the first book, The Barrakee Mystery, in which this Bony person must be more fully fleshed out. So we'll read that. If we can find it.