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Literature / Bony

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Bony — properly speaking, Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte — is the protagonist of a long-running Australian series of detective novels by Arthur Upfield. The first novel of the series, The Barrakee Mystery, was published in 1929, and sequels continued to appear until the author's death in 1964.

A university-educated police officer, Bony is half-Aboriginal but was orphaned at a very early age and raised in the white man's society. He got his name at the orphanage after being found teething on a volume of JSC Abbott's History of Napoléon Bonaparte. He is also familiar with Aboriginal culture, which often proves useful, and frequently works undercover, using his "half-caste" heritage to disguise his level of education.

The novels were adapted for radio early on, and for television in the 1970s under the title Boney. In the 1990s, there was a TV series called Bony starring Cameron Daddo as Detective David Bonaparte, supposedly a descendant of the novels' Bony.

Tony Hillerman was influenced by this series.

The novels provide examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: In The Sands of Windee, the death at the centre of the plot wasn't a deliberate homicide: the killer accidentally killed the victim while trying to prevent him knifing someone else in the back.
  • And Another Thing...: In The Bone Is Pointed, Bony has a conversation with someone he suspects of helping cover up the crime, but is unable to crack her composure. As he leaves, he pauses with his hand on the doorknob and throws back a seemingly casual remark that gets the revealing reaction he'd been hoping for.
  • Arc Words: The phrase "It is a time for courage" in Mr Jelly's Business, the original context of which is only revealed on the final page along with the nature of Mr Jelly's business.
  • Asshole Victim: The murder victim in The Bone Is Pointed is a sadistic creep whose crimes (which include raping a servant and beating a man nearly to death) have been covered up by his employer, who he has compromising information about.
  • Bait-and-Switch: At one point in Mr Jelly's Business, Bony confronts the mysterious Mr Jelly with the question, "What prison were you in?" The immediate implication is that Jelly is an old convict, but the subsequent conversation clarifies that Bony has deduced that, prior to taking up his current line of work, Jelly was a prison guard.
  • Big Ego, Hidden Depths: One of Bony's character traits is that he has absolutely no hesitation about telling people that he's Australia's best detective and he's never failed to solve a case. It's originally introduced as an amusing foible (even if it's true, which it probably is, one isn't meant to just come out and say it), but The Bone Is Pointed explores it in more depth, showing how his pride in his accomplishments is a keystone to how he maintains his self-respect in the face of society's assumption that he's lesser because of his ancestry.
  • Blackmail Backfire:
    • The murder motive in The Barrakee Mystery involves a secret from decades earlier which the victim had begun blackmailing one of the other characters over.
    • So does the murder motive in The Sands of Windee.
  • Book Ends: In The Barrakee Mystery, the first scene set at Barrakee Station begins with Martha bringing tea out to Mrs Thornton on the verandah, and the last scene begins with Martha bringing tea out to Kate on the same verandah.
  • Busman's Holiday: In Mr Jelly's Business, Bony is on holiday in Western Australia, far from his usual jurisdiction in Queensland, when he hears about an interesting mystery and talks his way into the investigation.
  • Cat Scare: In Winds of Evil, Bony is on a stake-out for a serial killer on a dark night, his senses stretched and his nerves on edge, when he hears a sudden noise behind him — but it's just an owl.
  • The Cavalry Arrives Late: At the climax of The Mystery of Swordfish Reef, the local police arrive in force at the villain's house to rescue a captive Bony, only to find that Bony has already freed himself and subdued the villain.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Early in Wings Above the Diamantina, there's a detailed description of how the Diamantina river is a dry riverbed for much of the year, but prone to flash floods that make it impossible to cross. Sure enough, one such flood occurs at the most dramatic moment near the end of the novel.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: In The Mystery of Swordfish Reef, the romantic subplot is between two people who have been close since they were children.
  • Cluster Bleep-Bomb: In Mr Jelly's Business, minor character Mr Poole has a tendency to lengthy complaints about things that annoy him, with all the adjectives replaced by the word "blank".
    "If it wasn't the blank wood, or the blanker cow, or the blankest Mrs Black, it would be the treble blank fowl that's got to be plucked."
  • Confess in Confidence: The Sands of Windee has a variation. An Aboriginal elder knows certain important facts about a death Bony is investigating, but is keeping quiet. He and Bony are both initiates of a particular Aboriginal tradition, and Bony could use that connection to ask the elder to confide in him, but he would be honor-bound not to reveal anything told him in those circumstances except to another initiate, which would make it useless for furthering the investigation.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: Mr Jelly's Business, in addition to the main murder mystery, has a B-plot in which Bony investigates the mysterious activities of the title character on behalf of his worried family. He makes a point of keeping this side-investigation secret from the two local police officers he's working with on the murder investigation, because he doesn't trust their discretion, but when he eventually learns what Mr Jelly's secret business is, it turns out that both the police officers were in on the secret the whole time and would have explained it to him straight away if he'd thought to ask either of them. Bony acknowledges for once that his tendency to assume he's the smartest person in the room has its downsides.
  • Cowboy Cop: Bony's effectiveness is connected to the fact that, as a social outsider, he's dismissive of authority figures and their red tape and prefers to do things his own way. This doesn't usually lead to the bulldozing approach of the typical cowboy cop, because he's an easy-going sort who prefers to patiently unravel a mystery, but there are moments. One such is in Wings Above the Diamantina, when, under time pressure to crack the case before the only witness succumbs to poisoning, he threatens a couple of suspects and bullies them into letting him search their premises without a warrant. At the end of the same novel, the police commissioner describes him as the worst policeman on the force, but the best detective.
  • Da Chief: Colonel Spendor, the head of the Queensland police. He's a shouty ex-military grump who not-so-secretly likes Bony as a person and respects him as a detective; on multiple occasions he's suspended Bony for refusing to follow orders only to reinstate him when he ignores his suspension and solves the case anyway.
  • Damsel in Distress: If there is a sweet little girl beloved by all characters, she will be kidnapped and Bony will have to track her down. If a plucky young woman is present, she will be injured and require assistance. Even the tough policewoman is subject to this.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: In Mr Jelly's Business, the title character is a respectable widower with two daughters, who has a strange obsession with the subject of what drives murderers to kill and a tendency, several times a year at unpredictable intervals, to leave town for a few days then return home with unexplained money and lock himself in his room to get drunk. It's revealed that his obsession began when his own wife was murdered, and that it led to him taking up a new line of work — as a professional executioner. All the murderers whose cases he studies are men on whom he personally carried out the death penalty.
  • A Deadly Affair: The key to the murder in Mr Jelly's Business. The victim arrived home early from a business trip, on foot because he'd been drinking and crashed his car, and surprised his wife with her lover; they lost their heads and killed him.
  • Death Row: The epilogue of Mr Jelly's Business depicts the murderer's last morning in the condemned cell, including the visit from the priest, his last breakfast, and the arrival of the prison officials to escort him on the last walk.
  • Disinherited Child: Part of the backstory of Wings Above the Diamantina is that old Mr Kane kept changing his will to disinherit one or both of his sons whenever they went against his wishes. At the time of his death, his current will left everything to Charles and nothing to John, but then Charles and his wife died in an accident, so John got everything anyway. And then it turned out that Charles had a daughter nobody knew about...
  • Disposing of a Body: The central problem of The Sands of Windee is that the killer disposed of the body so effectively that in addition to determining who did it and why, Bony first faces the problem of proving that it was done at all.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • In Mr Jelly's Business, one of the two culprits commits suicide to avoid having to live with the consequences of discovery. The other contemplates suicide as preferable to a public trial and execution, but can't bring himself to go through with it.
    • In Winds of Evil, the killer commits suicide to spare his family the ordeal of a public trial and because his murderous impulses are the result of a mental illness, and he finds death less horrifying than spending the rest of his life locked up in a mental institution.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: In Wings Above the Diamantina, Dr Knowles drinks constantly to numb the memory of losing a loved one during the war. Over the course of the novel, he gets a new interest in life and sobers up.
  • Drunken Master: In Wings Above the Diamantina, Dr Knowles learned to fly during the war, after he'd already become an alcoholic due to the loss of a loved one in a bombing raid. Subsequently, he can only fly a plane while drunk; every time he tries to fly one sober, he crashes.
  • The Exotic Detective: A part-Aboriginal detective in remote Australia.
  • Gambit Pile Up: In Winds of Evil, more than one local acting suspiciously turns out to be engaged in their own independent investigation of the murders because they don't know Bony is on the case and correctly judge that the detective officially investigating is incompetent; in addition to distracting Bony with red herrings, they each actively impede his progress at one point or another.
  • Glass Weapon: In one of the novels, the victims are killed with coloured glass daggers that were once used as props in a magic act to which characters are connected.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Bony is one of the fortunate examples. Others are not so fortunate. Depicted in the series similarly to Harmony Versus Discipline, with (white) discipline being the preferred option.
  • Harmless Lady Disguise: In Winds of Evil, a young man volunteers to disguise himself as a woman to help Bony set a trap for a serial killer.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Reading The Bone Is Pointed with an awareness of modern colloquialisms means that it doesn't quite have the intended effect when our hero announces that he's been boned by the shaman.
  • He Knows Too Much: Near the end of The Mystery of Swordfish Reef, the villain has Bony captive along with two other inconvenient witnesses and plans to dispose of them at sea to prevent them revealing his secrets.
  • Hypocritical Humor: In a scene in The Bone Is Pointed, Old Lacy complains that the younger generations are too interested in personal comfort while settling into what the narration notes is quite a comfortable armchair.
  • Identification by Dental Records: In The Mystery of Swordfish Reef, the murder victim's corpse is significantly decomposed by the time it's discovered, but a friend of the deceased recalls that he had dental work done within the past year, and knows the dentist who did it, so the identity of the remains is able to be established from the dental records.
  • Idiot Ball: In Winds of Evil, Bony sets up a trap for the Strangler, in the form of a decoy victim wearing a special collar that will protect his throat and indelibly mark the Strangler's hands so that he can be identified even if he escapes. The decoy is attacked, there is a scuffle in the dark, and the police bodyguard emerges triumphant with an unconscious suspect in handcuffs. Bony spends several minutes checking the unconscious man over to make sure his head injury isn't too serious, but neglects to look at his hands and confirm that they're marked, despite that being the entire point of the trap. This oversight, lampshaded by Bony himself later as one of the worst lapses of his career, is necessary so that Bony can be ambushed by the real Strangler at the end of the chapter for the dramatic final confrontation.
  • Insane Equals Violent: In Winds of Evil, the killer has a mental illness which manifests in occasional episodes of murderous violence, committed in a state similar to sleepwalking, which he doesn't recall while in his usual state of mind.
  • In the Blood: In The Barrakee Mystery, it's taken as read that a person with Aboriginal ancestry will never be entirely comfortable in white society and will always sooner or later hear the call of the bush — to the point that a character who was raised as white starts reverting to the traditional lifestyle and manifesting skills like animal tracking even before they learn about their ancestry. (Bony himself has found a balance: he has his niche in white society, but there are also times when disappears into the bush for a while to live in the ways of his ancestors.)
  • I Will Only Slow You Down: At the climax of Wings Above the Diamantina, Bony and two station hands are racing to Coolibah Station with an Aboriginal elder, Illawarra, who is the last chance of saving a poisoned witness, when they're all caught in the flash-flooding of the Diamantina river. They push on through the flood waters, but Bony's strength starts to give out and he tells the station hands they should leave him and push on ahead with Illawarra. They refuse to leave him behind until all four are safely on dry ground, and fortunately Illawarra still arrives in time to save his patient.
  • Let Off by the Detective: In The Bone Is Pointed, Bony falls seriously ill during an apparently dead-end investigation, and allows himself to be persuaded by his superiors to give it up and come home. He doesn't mention to them that actually he's already figured the whole thing out, including the fact that the Asshole Victim was killed in self-defence and that he's choosing to let the matter drop rather than cause problems for the people still living.
  • Magical Negro: Some Aboriginal shamans, such as Bony's friend Illawarra who appears in several novels, are depicted this way and are able to communicate telepathically to pass messages, wake unconscious characters, and the like. The tribe in The Bone Is Pointed possess several supernatural abilities, including the ability to pass telepathic messages over long distances and the ritual of the bone pointing.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: In The Barrakee Mystery, a white man falls in love with an Aboriginal woman; her family don't mind, but it draws opprobrium from all his white family and friends who find out. For what it's worth, some of them are as much provoked that in so doing he's ditching the woman he had been going to marry. The path is (somewhat uncomfortably) smoothed by the revelation that, although he was raised believing himself white, his own father was Aboriginal. This revelation comes along with another example of the trope from the other direction: his mother's brother, who knew his parentage, had been against his original marriage plan, considering that he wasn't good enough for a white woman.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: In The Barrakee Mystery, the Aboriginal girl Nellie Wanting's mother claims her father was an Aboriginal man known as "King Henry", but some other members of the tribe say they doubt it. It's never established who Nellie's father was, but it can be assumed that it wasn't King Henry because the author pairs her romantically with a man who turns out to be one of King Henry's sons.
  • Mook Horror Show: The climax of The Mystery of Swordfish Reef features the panicked villain being hunted through a dark house with the power out by an enraged Bony who's drawing on all the hunting tricks he's learned from his mother's people.
  • My Greatest Second Chance: In Wings Above the Diamantina, Dr Knowles is called on to treat a young woman who has been left in a coma after a murderous attack. He's struck by her resemblance to his first love, who died in his arms and left him Drowning His Sorrows, and vows that he's not going to let this woman die too.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname:
    • Although his full name is mentioned at least once in each novel, along with the anecdote about its origin, Bony prefers to be addressed or referred to as "Bony" by everyone, even professional colleagues.
      I am known to all my friends and colleagues as Bony. Just Bony. Even [the Commissioner] calls me Bony. He says: "Where the hell have you been, Bony?" and "Why the devil didn't you report, Bony, when I ordered you to?"
    • Dash and Dot in The Sands of Windee. Dash's real name comes up a few times, but Dot's is never mentioned.
  • Perma-Stubble: In The Mystery of Swordfish Reef, the hard-bitten sailor Joe Peace is noted in the narration to always have a half-inch of stubble, with nobody being able to remember ever seeing him clean-shaven or with a full beard.
  • Pink Elephants: The Sands of Windee includes a description of station workers hitting town to drink up their paycheck and subsequently hallucinating "reptiles and insects seen elsewhere only on the planet Mars".
  • Prefers Going Barefoot:
    • In The Barrakee Mystery, Mrs Thornton is in a running conflict with her Aboriginal servant Martha, who (although otherwise conforming to civilized dress standards) contrives to lose whatever shoes Mrs Thornton gives her to wear. At the time of the murder, they've temporarily compromised on a pair of men's boots, which confuses the evidence trail because the murderer left the print of the same style of boot. In the end, Mrs Thornton dies and Martha is last seen with "her feet unencumbered by hateful, unnatural footwear".
    • In The Mystery of Swordfish Reef, the sailor Joe Peace has always gone barefoot as long as anyone can remember. His deep knowledge of the sea and its contents makes him something of a marine equivalent of an Earthy Barefoot Character.
  • Remittance Man: The character called 'Dash' in The Sands of Windee is an Englishman of clearly genteel upbringing, who receives a quarterly allowance from his family back home. Unlike many examples of the trope, he's competent and not afraid of hard work, and it eventually comes out that rather than being sent abroad to escape a scandal, he volunteered to go because his family had hit financial straits and he didn't want to be a burden.
  • Revisiting the Cold Case:
    • In Winds of Evil, Bony is sent to investigate two old murders because the killer is still at large and expected to strike again. He has to deal with all the evidence being lost or obscured by time and the incompetence of the detective who originally investigated.
    • In The Bone Is Pointed, Bony is sent to investigate a five-month-old disappearance because the local bigshot keeps writing letters to the authorities complaining about it remaining unsolved.
  • Running Gag:
    • Bony's self-rolled cigarettes are regularly described as horrible, disgusting, or alleged.
    • In The Barrakee Mystery, a Boisterous Bruiser farmhand has a running feud with the local constabulary because every time he goes into town on leave he winds up getting arrested on a drunk and disorderly charge; the running joke is that he believes they pick on him whenever they need someone to whitewash the police station for free.
  • Sand In My Eyes: At the end of The Barrakee Mystery, a rough-and-tumble bushman is unexpectedly done a good turn; he wipes an arm across his eye, which the narration attributes to a speck of dust in his eye. He then quickly leaves, feeling more specks of dust coming on.
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: Bony has his moments.
  • Serial Killer Baiting: In Winds of Evil, Bony is trying to catch a serial killer, and resorts to baiting the killer with an apparently unwary young lady who is actually a young man in Harmless Lady Disguise. The trap doesn't entirely come off — in the darkness and confusion, the killer gets away while the police collar another man who had been staking out the area in an independent attempt to catch the killer — but the killer sustains an injury that leads to his identity being revealed shortly afterward.
  • Shout-Out: In The Sands of Windee, Bony is compared to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Thorndyke.
  • Somewhere, a Mammalogist Is Crying: The Bone Is Pointed features a plague of rabbits, and the narration frequently refers to them as "rodents". Although early taxonomists did count rabbits as a kind of rodent, the scientific consensus that they're a separate order was well-established for decades by the time the novel was written.
  • Suck Out the Poison: Happens occasionally due to copious Australian snakes.
  • Surrogate Soliloquy:
    • In The Sands of Windee, Bony spends most of one chapter explaining his current progress on the investigation to a small bird that happens to perch nearby.
    • In The Bone Is Pointed, Bony gives several surrogate progress reports to various animals, including his horse and his hunting dog.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: The villain of The Mystery of Swordfish Reef repeatedly calls one of his henchmen a fool and an incompetent for messing up whatever task he's been sent to carry out (including the murder at the centre of the mystery, which was a kidnapping that went off script). In a moment of self-reflection near the end, he admits that he bears ultimate responsibility since he'd known his underling's shortcomings for years and could have planned for them better.
  • Sympathetic Magic: In The Bone Is Pointed, the Aboriginal ritual of 'pointing the bone' to put a death curse on someone requires collecting up something that has been closely connected to the victim (in Bony's case, they use some of his discarded cigarette butts). The narration notes that all such rituals have a layer of theatre wrapped around a core of real magic, and it's not clear whether the collection is really integral to the magic or just part of the theatre, particularly since the ritual ends with the collection being left somewhere that the victim will find it so they will know they've been cursed.
  • Switched at Birth: In Winds of Evil, part of the backstory is that two local women — the wife of the local landowner and another, poorer woman whose husband was an unstable drunkard — gave birth to sons around the same time. The official record is that the poorer woman's child died soon after, but Bony figures out that it was actually the landowner's son who died, and the landowner persuaded the poorer woman to let the babies be exchanged. She tells Bony that she doesn't regret the exchange, as she's been able to watch her son grow up, in a much better home environment than she'd have been able to offer him, into a man any mother could be proud of.
  • Telepathy: In The Bone Is Pointed, members of the Aboriginal tribe have a magic ritual by which they are able to pass messages telepathically over long distances.
  • This Is Reality: About halfway through The Sands of Windee, Bony declines to explain what he's discovered so far to the policeman he's working with, saying that he'd rather keep it to himself until he has all the pieces put together. He remarks that that's the way detectives in books always do it, and his colleague complains that this is real life and he isn't a detective in a book.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Appear in a couple post-WWII novels.
  • Turn in Your Badge: In The Sands of Windee, Bony recalls that on several occasions he's been fired for either pursuing a mystery when his superiors want him to do something else or refusing to take on a case that he considers insufficiently challenging. He always gets reinstated shortly afterward, because he's too useful to dispense with.
  • Twin Telepathy: In The Mystery of Swordfish Reef, Marion Spinks asserts that she's always had an instinctive sense of when her twin brother Bill is in trouble, and felt the pain when he was injured. Everything she reports her instinct telling her about Bill's condition in the course of the story is validated by the narrative.
  • Twisted Christmas: The climax of The Sands of Windee takes place in late December (high summer in Australia), with everything taking a sudden turn for the worse on Christmas Eve. While Bony chases down the killer at risk to his own life, most of the other characters spend Christmas Day and several days after fighting a wildfire that threatens their homes and livelihoods.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: In The Barrakee Mystery, the overseer of Barakee Station, Frank Dugdale, is in love with the boss's niece but doesn't feel able to propose to her until he's worked his way up to owning a property of his own. Blair, one of the station hands, has a more comedic version of a similar dilemma.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The murderer in Mr Jelly's Business is noted to be clever and capable of keeping his cool even in difficult circumstances, but goes completely to pieces at the climax as the authorities close in and he realises there's no escape.
  • Year X: In The Barrakee Mystery, set in the late 1920s, a letter is dated "August 12th, 19—". (However, the first sentence of the letter refers to the events of "Saturday, March 5th", which pins it to 1927.)

The adaptations provide examples of:

  • Ascended Extra: Constable McGorr only appeared in two novels, Murder Must Wait and The Battling Prophet, but was made a regular character in the 1970s series so that Bony would have somebody to explain his thought processes to.
  • Everybody Is Single: In the novels, Bony is middle-aged and married with children; in the 1970s TV series, he's twenty years younger and single.
  • Setting Update: The 1970s TV series was set in the 1970s.
  • Spin-Offspring: The 1990s TV series.
  • The Watson: Constable McGorr in the 1970s series.