"One's idea must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature."- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, 1887)
Back in June, I posted a review of Venom House (1952) by Arthur W. Upfield and concluded the blog-post with the promise to return to his work more often, which, somehow, I actually managed to achieve – posting one review every month since that post. So why not continue down this path?
The Battling Prophet (1956) numbers twenty in the series about Upfield's half-caste policeman, Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte of the Queensland Police, whose special abilities makes him the man for "special assignments in the Outback" or "outer urban areas." Originally, the book was published as a serial in a weekly newspaper, The World's News, in 1955, which probably explains one uncharacteristic aspect about this particular entry in the series.
One of the hallmarks of this series are the bright, colorful and vividly described backdrops that can be found on the Australian continent. And turning these settings into full-fledged characters was one of Upfield's talents. Over the course of twenty-nine books, Bony traveled to desert lagoons, isolated cattle stations, lonely swamps, valley towns and braved the parched, treeless grounds of the Nullarbor Plains, which impressed on the reader the sheer size of the continent, but a large chunk of The Battling Prophet takes place in-and around a small cottage – giving off the impression that you’re reading a novelized version of a stage play.
The cottage in question belongs to eighty-four year old Mr. John Luton, a man of the old guard, who represents a dying race of men "who had left their mark so indelibly on the Outback." A stock of men "the like of which will never again be seen," because they "were born long before motor traction could weaken their bodies" and "the craze for luxury and mental distraction" came too late to get a firm grip on their minds, but they were prone to some of the old-world weaknesses – such as an Australian predilection for blackout drinking. However, even these drinking binges were done in accord with old-school rules: an observance that's "a relic from the old days" when hard workingmen would go on a weeks-long drinking spree after a long, self-imposed period of abstinence.
Tragically, the last of these benders at the riverside cottage resulted in a casualty. Ben Wickham is a long-time friend of Luton and had as many enemies as admirers, which he accumulated during "a stormy career" as a pioneer of modern meteorology.
During the 1950s, the science behind modern, long-range weather forecasts was still largely theoretical: the plans from the 40s to launch cameras in orbit, to observe weather and cloud patterns from space, would not come to fruition until April 1, 1960 – when the first weather satellite, TIROS-1, was launched. So to be able to make accurate forecasts, before the dawn of the space age, has serious (geo) political implications.
Wickham has a weather record, dating back five decades, which allows him to make accurate prediction about the weather four, five or even six years ahead. One of Wickham's recent victories was the spot-on prediction about a great draught, but the accuracy of this forecast earned him as much scorn as admiration. As a result, the farmers who took Wickham seriously did not fallow their land, sown crops, bought manures, hired farm hands or took out any loans – which saved many of them from potentially bankrupting themselves. However, the people who had a financial or political interest in the farmers spending all of their money were not amused. Not amused at all.
This is the reason for Luton's refusal to accept that Wickham had "died in the hoo-jahs of alcoholic poisoning," which he slipped into after one of their drinking spells, but was killed on account of him preventing the enslavement of farmers and graziers by "the big merchants" and "the banks." So on the recommendation of his neighbor, Knocker Harris, the old man dispatched an urgent letter to Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. Upon his arrival, Bony is confronted with the first of many complications and obstacles: if it is the murder, the culprit was clever enough to fool both the local doctor and the medical examiner from the police department. A death certificate was signed, stating Wickham had died "from heart disease accelerated by alcohol," after which the body was cremated and the dust scattered to the four winds. A perfect murder!
A good security for the murderer, but, regardless, someone starts pulling strings and Bony finds his own police apparatus is starting to work against him. Officially, Bony is on a fishing holiday and a guest of Mr. Luton, but rather quickly begins to receive urgent summons to make an early return to duty – orders he ignored and this makes him eventually a wanted man. But that's not all. Bony and Luton find themselves confronted with a couple of foreign agents, from behind the Iron Curtain, who proved to be prone to violence and prefer to enter a room with a gun in hand.
I think this betrays the episodic nature of the story's original run as a newspaper serial, but makes for a fun, well-paced yarn. And loved how much Bony was enjoying his precarious situation.
By the end of the book, Bony should've been so deep in trouble that it would've taken a platoon of gravediggers to get him out of it again, but he simply lifts himself out of the hole. How? Bony blackmails all of the involved police organizations and government branches by threatening to expose their, less than legal, activities. This makes for an excellent closer and recalled Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang (1965), in which Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin also use the illegal activities of a government agency (i.e. FBI) to close a case.
So all of this makes for a good and even excellent read, but there's one blemish that keeps The Battling Prophet from a place in the first rank. The revelation of the murderer was anti-climatic and was not really connected to any of the other plot-threads, which was slightly disappointing. I found the background of the victim fascinating and the murder should really have been tied to his activities as a meteorologist.
Unfortunately, The Battling Prophet ended on a slightly disappointing note, but the journey to the final chapter was not bad. There were some pretty good or fun scenes. One of them has Bony telling Rev. Weston about his past, while they cast a fish line, which recounts his birth and how he acquired his peculiar name. Bony alluded to his origin in other novels, but this telling of his story seemed to have a bit more details. I also liked the scene when has inside a hidden cellar listening to a policeman making enquiries about his whereabouts. As I noted, Bony was having far too much fun in this outing.
My other reviews from this series:
Winds of Evil (1937)
The Bone is Pointed (1938)
An Author Bites the Dust (1948)
Venom House (1952)
Cake in the Hat Box (1954)
The Battling Prophet (1956)
Bony and the Mouse (1959)