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‘Journey to the Hangman’

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Do you enjoy a cracking good detective yarn, full of realistic, vivid characters in an exotic setting–I mean, real exotic?

The late Arthur Upfield’s chronicles of Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte are among the best mystery novels ever written; and the one I’ve just finished reading, Journey to the Hangman, is one of my favorites.

In a very small and close-knit town in the Australian Outback, a town not very far removed at all from its frontier past–we’re in the 1950s here, but the town of Daybreak doesn’t seem to have a single television set–Bony has to solve three murders, with every indication that another murder will be done if he doesn’t catch the killer fast.

Visiting Daybreak is like stepping a hundred years into the past. Indeed, Upfield so excelled at settings that we sometimes forget he was just as masterful at describing characters and bringing them to life.

And of course the centerpiece of all these novels is Bony himself, half-white, half-aborigine–a hunter who has never failed to catch his prey, because he knows that just a single failure would destroy him. When Upfield started writing these books in the 1940s, many white Australians viewed the aborigines as primitive savages: but Upfield delved into the riches of their ancient culture, and wrote of them with respect and admiration. In our own era of supercharged racial politics, Upfield can be read as a voice of sanity. I appreciate that.

Anyway, it’s a real poser of a mystery, and yet we almost don’t care because the place and the people are so fascinating. Upfield knew how to put you there–and only great writers are able to do that… again and again.


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