Mr Jelly's Business (also published as Murder Down Under) was a fairly early entry in Arthur W. Upfield’s cycle of mysteries featuring the half-Aboriginal Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (universally known as Bony). This book came out in 1937.
This time Bony is in Western Australia, in the wheat town of Burracoppin. Bony is on leave from the Queensland Police Force when he finds himself drawn into solving the mysterious disappearance of farmer George Loftus. As he often does Bony goes undercover, posing as a worker on the famous Rabbit Proof Fence (the world’s longest fence).
George Loftus had left the pub in Burracoppin, somewhat the worse for drink. He had apparently crashed his car into the Rabbit Proof Fence and then reversed and ended up in a ditch. After which he simply vanished. Was he murdered or did he decide for some reason of his own to disappear? Bony suspects murder but he has to admit there is absolutely no solid evidence of foul play.
There is another mystery to be solved in Burracoppin. The Jelly farm is not far from the Loftus farm. Mr Jelly is an amiable widower in late middle age, devoted to his two daughters. At regular intervals Mr Jelly vanishes as well, only to reappear a few days later. Whenever he reappears he is uncharacteristically withdrawn and morose for a couple of days and drinks heavily (which again is very uncharacteristic of him). The obvious suspicion is that his disappearances are linked to an indulgence in some secret vice - women, drink or perhaps gambling. The really puzzling thing though is that when he reappears he always has more money than he had when he disappeared! It’s an odd sort of vice that pays well and pays regularly.
Compared to Wings Above the Diamantina, published a year earlier, Mr Jelly's Business is perhaps a slight disappointment in the plotting department. There are actually two plots, two mysteries to be solved, and Upfield weaves them together quite skillfully at the end. The problem is that once you’ve figured out one of the mysteries the solution to the other becomes fairly obvious and it isn’t particularly difficult to work out either mystery. A few more red herrings would have helped. The shock ending wasn’t a great shock to me.
On the other hand this novel does display Upfield’s strengths. The atmosphere of the wheat country is captured superbly. As always Upfield is very solid in his portrayal of life in rural Australia. Upfield not only knew rural Australia, he liked it and he liked the people. He doesn’t glamourise either the life or the people, he can see the downsides as well as the upsides, but on the whole there’s a real respect for both.
In this novel we learn a little bit more about Bony’s career. He has been fired more than once by the Queensland Police Force. In fact it’s apparently a regular occurrence. Bony treats direct orders from superior officers with disdain. If it suits him he obeys; if it doesn’t he simply ignores the order. And gets fired. It doesn’t worry him. He knows they’ll always reinstate him once the fuss dies down. He gets results and his superiors know it. They don’t care how unconventional his methods might be or how exasperatingly oblivious he is to discipline. Once a tough case comes up Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte will be back on the force.
There is a good reason for Bony’s preference for working undercover. He has no great problem with racial prejudice - he encounters it and is hurt by it but he is always confident that he can overcome it by means of his obvious competence, his first-class education and his very considerable charm. There is however one form of prejudice that is not so easily overcome - the almost universal prejudice against policemen. That’s the prejudice that really worries Bony. It makes his job much harder so whenever he can he works undercover.
Bony also displays his characteristic generosity towards other police officers. His own reputation is already well and truly made and he has no interest in further promotion so he’s more than happy to solve a case and give the credit to a promising junior officer.
We also discover one minor flaw in his character - he is subject to occasional bursts of temper.
If you’re new to Upfield then Wings Above the Diamantina is a better place to start, with its clever impossible crime plot. Mr Jelly's Business is still a good read. Recommended.