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Upfield, Arthur William (1890–1964)

by Stephen Knight

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Arthur William Upfield (1890-1964), by Austin Murcott Studios, c1930

Arthur William Upfield (1890-1964), by Austin Murcott Studios, c1930

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23162605

Arthur William Upfield (1890-1964), writer and bushman, was born on 1 September 1890 at Gosport, Hampshire, England, eldest of five sons of James Oliver Upfield, draper, and his wife Annie, née Barmore. Named William Arthur, he was known to his relations as 'Arker-Willum' and grew up to be Arthur. Educated at Blenheim House, Fareham, he was mostly reared by his grandparents and apprenticed to Puttock & Blake, surveyors of Gosport. At the age of 19 he was sent at his father's wish to Australia.

Arriving in Adelaide late in 1911, Upfield immediately responded to the call of the outback, roaming through New South Wales and Queensland until war was declared. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 22 August 1914. Allotted to the Light Horse Brigade Train, he went to the Middle East; he was a driver with the Australian Army Service Corps and took part in the Gallipoli campaign. At the British Consulate General, Alexandria, Egypt, he married Anne Douglass, a nurse, on 3 November 1915. Acting sergeant on several occasions, Upfield was sent to England in 1916 and to France next year.

Discharged in London in October 1919, after returning to Australia in 1921 he separated from his wife. Upfield resumed bush work and spent some time in Western Australia. Encouraged by the wife of a station-owner of a Darling run in New South Wales, he began to write and soon turned to the popular genre of crime fiction. Although The House of Cain appeared in 1928, his first novel was The Barrakee Mystery (London, 1929) which originally had a White sleuth: during rewriting, it gained the character of the detective Napoleon Bonaparte, a part-Aborigine who had graduated from the University of Queensland. Upfield claimed that 'Bony' was based upon the part-Aborigine Leon Wood, a wise man, a skilled tracker and a good friend.

Many novels steadily followed. Upfield gained some notoriety when the plot of The Sands of Windee (London, 1931) was apparently used by a murderer in Western Australia. Leaving the bush in 1931, but unable to live from royalties, Upfield became a feature writer with the Melbourne Herald; he lived at Airey's Inlet, Victoria, where he later set The New Shoe (New York, 1951). When Doubleday & Co. of New York republished The Mystery of Swordfish Reef (Sydney, 1939) in 1943, it sold 22,000 copies. Upfield became a major figure in international crime fiction, the first foreigner to be a full member of the Mystery Writers of America. He wrote full time, moving about Australia with Jessica Hawke, his long-time companion and the author (or perhaps co-author) of his biography. In 1948 he led a 5000-mile (8047 km) expedition through the Kimberleys, Western Australia, for the Australian Geographical Society.

Irritation at the failure of literary circles to acknowledge him as a creative artist inspired Upfield to write one of his most sharply effective novels, An Author Bites the Dust (Sydney, 1948), in which a pillar of the literary establishment is brought down in more ways than one. Presenting himself as 'a story teller first and last', Upfield claimed 'I'm not a literary figure and don't want to be'. He was 'a crusty man', who appeared 'slight, wiry, buttoned up and outwardly irascible', with hazel eyes, 'weatherbeaten face, grizzled hair, ears like jug handles, a glass of whisky in his hand and the ubiquitous grey homburg on the chair beside him'.

Unassuming but spiky, at once simple and complex, Upfield had done most of the jobs that he wrote about, from stockmen's cook to camel-driving fence-patroller. He acquired considerable learning about aspects of Aboriginal lore, which he respected, even revered; he was also familiar with the elemental forces that gave him a numinous sense and that so dominate his plots, such as in Death of a Lake (Melbourne, 1954) and Bony and the White Savage (London, 1961).

Survived by his son, Upfield died on 12 February 1964 at Bowral, New South Wales, and was cremated. The last of his twenty-nine 'Bony' titles, The Lake Frome Monster (London, 1966), was completed by J. L. Price and Dorothy Strange. In the mystique of the bush, Upfield saw elements of epic power in Australian life. In contrast, his rather dry style and meticulous plotting seem distinctly smaller in scale. But that is part of Upfield's impact, creating a worm's eye view of awesome natural grandeur, a sense of human inadequacy in a dominating continent.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hawke with A. Upfield, Follow My Dust (Lond, 1957)
  • J. Reilly (ed), Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers (NY, 1985)
  • J. Symons, Bloody Murder (Lond, 1984)
  • Australian Journal, 1 Dec 1935, p 1701, 1 Jan 1936, p 100, 1 Feb 1936, p 238, 4 Mar 1937, p 852
  • People (Sydney), 27 Aug 1954, p 12
  • Walkabout, May 1964, p 37
  • Armchair Detective, Nov 1974
  • This Australia, 5, no 3, Winter 1986, p 53
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Jan 1961.

Citation details

Stephen Knight, 'Upfield, Arthur William (1890–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/upfield-arthur-william-8900/text15635, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Arthur William Upfield (1890-1964), by Austin Murcott Studios, c1930

Arthur William Upfield (1890-1964), by Austin Murcott Studios, c1930

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23162605