Sunday, April 12, 2015

Arthur Upfield

Weather: Winds some afternoons and evenings blew Russian thistles into the yard, last rain 3/19.

What’s blooming in the area: First apples, cherry, peach, crab apple, forsythia, daffodils, moss phlox; lilacs almost open.

Beyond the walls and fences: Alfilerillo, western stickseed, dandelion.

In my yard: Sand cherry, purple leaf sand cherry, Siberian pea, vinca.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: House finches are back, early butterflies.

Weekly update: Character, plot, setting. You know the items found in every drama. You learned them in eighth grade. Some mystery writers like Agatha Christie focus on how individuals respond to pressure. Others, like Ngaio Marsh, create intricate mechanisms that suggest only one person can be guilty. Only Arthur Upfield features the landscape as an active agent.

In the novel I was reading this past week, Winds of Evil, late spring winds generate static electricity that send a man into a murderous frenzy. During the day the sun heats the sand until it rises to turn everything red. Don’t expect logic. Imagine reading it like I did this past week with winds howling outside the house. You gauge the speed by watching trees move during the day, but once the sun goes down, you’re trapped in a black envelope of sound.

Upfield’s detective is an Australian half-caste named Bony. In many stories he solves the case by tracking faint imprints on sand or reading a page from the bush. In some later adventures, after the author was committed to producing books on contract regardless of inspiration, the technique shows. Find some unusual landscape, set the detective stalking the villain, and add an ending that somehow explains it.

In the best, though, the Boys’ Own style narrative takes over. In The Bushman Who Came Back, a dry lake is turned to mush as water seeps under from a storm up stream. Bony creeps from dry spot to dry spot wearing boards like snowshoes to rescue a kidnapped child.

A monsoon crashes a plane in Wings above Diamantina. The waters turn a dry river bed into a mile wide river the hero must swim to take an antidote for a native poison to a doctor standing helpless by a dying woman. The villain is trapped like a fowl roosting in a tree above the raging waters.

When I first read these books years ago, I was living in Michigan. They were a pleasant read. Rereading them after several decades in New Mexico was a recapitulation of the worse moments in outdoor living.

We may not have Lake Eyre, but we have everything else. In Death of a Swagman, the wind has built a twelve-mile long dune of sand hundreds of feet high. In Winds of Evil, Bony disguises himself as a ranch hand who clears buck brush and straw trapped by a fence. In Mr. Jelly’s Business, he repairs a fence designed to keep out rabbits and watches ants.

Then, night falls. The rain and wind wipe away clues. The familiar turns surreal. The ordinary morphs into shapeless malevolence. The landscape ceases to be some quaint inspiration for Georgia O’Keefe. It becomes a prima dona controlling the lives of all who come within its orbit.

Photographs: Other places, people have tulips and daffodils in spring. Here we have weeds, or, if you prefer, wild flowers and roadside plants. Photographs all taken in the area Thursday, 9 April 2015.

1. Hoary cress.
2. Alfilerillo.
3. Western stickseed.
4. Some yellow-flowered mustard.
5. Purple mustard.

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