BEAT NOT THE BONES
By: Charlotte Jay
Soho Press, New York
This elegantly written novel is a re-print of a
classic mystery first published in 1952.
It was, in fact, the first recipient of the “Edgar Award for
Best Novel” nearly fifty years ago.
The “Edgars” are the highest form of recognition awarded to
mysteries and mystery writers.
The setting for this story is post war Papua-New
Guinea as a young widow, Stella Warwick seeks answers to the mysterious
death of her husband, an anthropologist working among the indigenous
peoples the island of Marapai. While
the official cause of death has been established as suicide, Stella
believes this to be so out of character for her husband that she is
driven to seek out answers on her own.
Her investigations begin with those officials of
the government of Australia who have been assigned to re-assume the
“White Man’s Burden” in New Guinea after the defeat of the
Japanese, all of whom either worked for or with her husband.
Some of these individuals are seemingly helpful and empathetic;
others indifferent, and still others are unabashedly hostile and
obstructionist. All of them
know more than they are willing to tell—or so it seems as Stella
pursues her single-minded passion.
This passion ultimately drives Stella to penetrate the interior
of the island to find the village of the primitive indigenes in
which the suicide reportedly took place.
This novel works wonderfully on three different but
wholly integrated planes. The
mystery itself is a compelling one:
Charlotte Jay’s subtle writing keeps the reader wondering
whether Stella’s search is not, in reality, the result of an obsessed
widow quickly losing her tenuous grip on reality or if, in fact, her
husband was the victim of foul play.
Jay also describes the metamorphosis of Stella from a timid,
frightened young widow into a tough, self-reliant zealot who, against
the wishes of friend or foe alike, fearlessly (or foolishly) strikes off
into the interior to find the answers she must have.
The third element is the jungle itself.
In writing reminiscent of Joseph Conrad, Charlotte Jay describes
the foreboding lushness of the New Guinea interior in such a way that
the jungle itself becomes a major character—perhaps the major character
in the novel. Jay also
writes subtly and with great insight into the dynamics that come into
play when supposedly “advanced” cultures come face to face with
supposedly “primitive” cultures.
This is a beautifully written book that deserves a
wide audience—even though a half-century has passed since its first
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