Bony Emily?

Adrian Hyland, Diamond Dove (©2006, Text Publishing 2010)

Detective Napoleon Bonaparte, known as ‘Bony’, had one white and one Aboriginal parent. He appeared in most of the 29 novels written by Arthur Upfield between 1922 and 1996 (the last being finished by other people and published two years after Upfield’s death). Upfield was a bushman himself, who knew what he was talking about when he described life in the outback, and the books’ respectful approach to Aboriginal lore probably played a role over the years in softening mainstream Australian culture’s dismissive racism. My cane-farmer father was a fan. I have read only one of the novels, and that was many years ago, but its title alone – The Bone is Pointed – indicates how the books have dated, how their inevitable racism now stands out and may well overshadow their virtues. If I remember correctly, Aboriginal culture was essentialised (part of Bony’s nature, in tension with his white nature) and generalised (no distinctions are made among the many different Aboriginal cultures and languages).

Adrian Hyand’s Emily Tempest books, of which Diamond Dove (Moonlight Downs in the US and Outback Bastard in Germany) is the first, have a similar set-up. Emily, the university educated daughter of a traditional Aboriginal woman and a white man, belongs like Bony in both worlds and in neither. But we’re definitely in the 21st century: Emily’s mother comes from a particular people, the fictional Wantiya mob, and Emily herself grew up as a kind of foster daughter to the similarly fictional Warlpuju mob; there are Native Title land claims, unscrupulous miners, post-Papunya-Tula art, and complex sexual scenarios.

This is genre fiction. Where else would you find a passage like this:

A maniac, it seemed then, was the only logical solution,and a convenient maniac was what we had in the turbulent, rolling-eyed Blakie. Everything pointed to the crazy bastard. it had to be him.
Why, then, was I beginning to feel the first little pricks of doubt?

The only possible answer to that question is, ‘Because you’re in a detective story, Emily.’ That is to say, we’re not being asked to take this book seriously as a work of social or political analysis. It’s meant to be fun, and it is. Emily herself is gutsy, witty in a hardboiled way, the most engaging detective hero I’ve encountered in a long time.

Talking on The Book Show recently on the occasion of her 90th birthday, P D James reflected on the murder mystery novel:

The classical detective story is … popular in times of anxiety, times of strife, times of war and dangers of war, times of depression. That’s when its comfort is so necessary because at these times one can feel that there are problems facing communities, facing countries, facing the world generally, which really are insoluble, however much money and however much effort you pour into them. Here you have a form of popular fiction with a puzzle at its heart and by the end of the book it will be solved, not by divine intervention or good luck but by a human being, by courage and perseverance and intelligence. So it rather confirms our belief, which I still think we have, that we live in a rational and moral universe.

These remarks could hardly be more apposite. Adrian Hyland has given us a classic detective story set in the midst of the strife, anxiety and apparent insolubility of the continuing dispossession and disadvantage of Australian Aboriginal people. He lets aspects of that dire situation be seen, but offers us the comfort of a puzzle, which is solved, exactly as the Dame says, by courage and perseverance and intelligence. Hyland thanks ‘the Indigenous people of Central Australia’ in the acknowledgements, but makes it clear that his Aboriginal characters belong to a fictional language group and live in fictional country. He doesn’t claim to have anyone’s permission to tell his stories, but then Emily is is not an insider to Warlpuju culture, so there are no secrets being revealed. Hyland is a middle-aged white man who writes in the voice of a young Aboriginal woman. I know I’m another middle-aged white man, so my opinion may need to be taken with a dose of salt, but I think he’s done brilliantly.

A second Emily Tempest novel, Gunshot Road, was published earlier this year. My recommender of detective books says it’s even better.

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