Worst Beta Reader Ever

One of my favourite fictional detectives in my youth was Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. Being mixed-race, he has one foot in the Aboriginal world and one in the white world, without ever fully belonging in either. It was something I related to as a TCK (although I’m not mixed-race – unless you count English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish as mixed race – just mixed-up).

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Boundary riding on the Rabbit-Proof Fence, 1920s. Note camels.

The author of the “Bony” novels was Arthur Upfield, and in the late 1920s, while working as a boundary rider on the Rabbit-Proof Fence, he thought he’d try writing a mystery where the detective is hampered by the absence of a body. (The victim’s body, that is. Incorporeal detectives, as far as I know, didn’t come along until some four decades later, with Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).)

Upfield’s colleague George Ritchie came up with a nifty way of destroying all the evidence (solving the age-old problem of What To Do With The Body), but it was so exceedingly nifty that there wouldn’t be anything left for Bony to go to work on. Upfield went so far as to offer Ritchie a pound (which was worth a good deal more just before the Great Depression than it is now) if he could find a loophole, and he couldn’t.

Of course, many brains make light work, so the friends and connections of Upfield were soon all chewing over how to solve the problem. Everyone was talking about it. Ritchie mentioned it to another boundary-rider named Snowy Rowles – or at least, called Snowy Rowles, having made his original name of John Thomas Smith too hot to hold him – and Snowy… well, Snowy went and tried the method out, and what do you know? It worked.

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Snowy with the car of Victim #1 or 2.

But by the time he got around to murder #3 Snowy was getting sloppy, and he skipped one of the steps. Result: a metal ring belonging to murder victim #3 was discovered and identified, and then people started to get suspicious about the two other guys who’d last been seen in Snowy’s company some months before.

In the end, Snowy was only charged with murder #3 because there was no remaining evidence of murders #1 and 2. Upfield testified in court that yes indeedy, Snowy did know all about this foolproof method of disposing of bodies, and the jury had no hesitation in finding him guilty. Exit Snowy Rowles alias John Thomas Smith.

So Upfield had his solution: insufficiently cautious murderers leave metallic evidence behind. He even used the detail of the mended ring in a subsequent novel. But it’s the sort of thing that rises up and haunts you in the small hours: if I hadn’t, would he…? Yes, authors want to know if there are loopholes in their plots. But no one wants three murders committed to provide clarity. Snowy Rowles: worst beta-reader ever.

4 Replies to “Worst Beta Reader Ever”

  1. Very interesting, and more than a little worrying. It does make me wonder if other writers of the day were as thorough in their research? Sounds risky, if so!

    1. Well, at least Upfield wasn’t murdering people himself. That would be entirely too “method”.
      On a more positive note, I’ve heard of a doctor spotting a case of rare poisoning because they’d recently read an Agatha Christie where someone shows up with the same symptoms. If I recall correctly, it was The Pale Horse they’d read.

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