Thursday, November 15, 2012
You may find yourself reaching for your Michener or your Mailer after reading Graeme Kent's debut novel, Devil-Devil (SohoCrime, 2011). Because, you might, like I did, find your taste for this part of the world rather whetted by Kent's congenial tale of a combo police sargeant/spiritual peacekeeper and a nosy nun in the Solomon Islands. Maybe it was just the hugely refreshing change from grim old Europe, and the Vastly Important Struggles Between the Forces of Light and Dark that consume WW2 and Cold War detective fiction. Maybe it's just that the sun shines (when it is not raining) and the men run about in shorts or less. The women, too. I've a feeling we're not in Cambridge anymore.
Our Hero in Devil-Devil is Ben Kella, favorite if complicated son of the Solomon Islands, brilliant mission-educated student, courageous fighter of the Japanese, police sargeant, and aofia, which is a hereditary spiritual peacekeeper of the Lau people who live on Malaita. In other words, Ben has a foot in both the British colonial community and the native world, and as a result is really not entirely trusted by either. It's that usual theme of the outsider solving the crime, but in this case, Ben has to draw on his ultimate insider status of aofia to find out what exactly is going on in the high bush country. There's been a death of an old saltwater man, an old corpse has been unearthed and discovered to have also been murdered, the first dead guy's grandson is soon killed, an American anthropologist has disapeared and then when they start shooting at Sister Conchita, well, you know its going to get complicated. Did I mention that Kella is under a bones tabu, placed on him by the old, feared and revered headman, Pazabosi?
"Kella was suddenly aware that they were not alone. Thirty yards away at a bend in the track stood a tall elderly islander with a helmet of grey hair. It had been years since they had last met but Kella recognized him at once. For a moment the two men stood with their eyes locked. Slowly, almost reluctantly, the old man lifted a short carved bone onto which he had impaled a bladder of a bonito fish glowing with phosphorous. The islander pointed the stick at Kella. At the same time, with his other hand, he lifted a bag made with a pandanus leaf and rattled the contents viciously. Abruptly he turned and was lost to sight among the trees.
Peter Oro looked at Kella. All traces of the youth's truculence had vanished. Suddenly he was just another frightened village boy brought against his will into contact with the ghosts.
'That magic man has cursed you, Sargeant Kella,' he said, his voice shaded by misery and despair. 'Now surely you will die!'" (18)
Spooky. In a good way.
A great strength of this book is Kent's effective portrayal of the culturally complex island communities with myriad dialects, customs, and lifestyles. The scenes in the capital city of Honiara, on Guadalcanal, particularly reveal this, with a bustling Chinatown, various different groups of islanders, British expats, and of course, the missionaries, all going about their business. We learn pretty early on that the Solomons expect to become indepdenent from Great Britain (they are in 1960 a protectorate), and that awareness lends a certain energy to everyone, since everyone's going to want a piece of the new country, presumably. (In fact, independence doesn't come until the mid-1970s, and then it is really only self-rule, QEII remains the head of state.) And the setting is terrific - there really are palm-fringed beaches, and coconut trees, and waterfalls going over cliffs. Kent doesn't overdo the tropical paradise bit, but places you deep in the islands with an economy of words.
But back to those missionaries, because they are central. Our Other Hero, Sister Conchita, is a nun from Boston with a habit (sorry) of causing trouble from getting overly involved in local situations. Here she's in it up to her neck in the beginning of the tale, being involved in the unearthing of that old corpse, but then she pretty quickly removes to Honiara, where she operates a little behind the scenes, but mostly sits out the exciting parts of the story back on the island of Malaita. The back-of-book description is a little misleading in this respect, since it implies that Kella and Sister C. will be working together to solve the crime, which they are not really. The final scene is a set-up for future books in the series, so apparently that's where the team bit will come. Still, the mission aspect is in some ways the most interesting because it is a long-settled white presence in the islands. In some ways it is tolerated much better than the British government, and of course in other ways it is completely disdained by the islanders, who have their own belief systems and while polite, aren't really ever going to take on the Praying Mary's. The best missionaries, in the sense of being the most successful at integrating with the local communities, are the ones who go a little native - who actually make an effort to understand how the locals live, with some respect and less interference. In that way, they are just one more group working and living on the islands, trying to get along. Kent's churchy crowd are diverse and mostly sympathetic characters, even if he does play that old trope, the crafty old nun (Sound of Music anyone?) for laughs.
I did not like the relative lack of Sister Conchita (more nuns fixing the old jeeps please!), and the almost complete absence of native women - except as set decoration or enthusiastic sex partners. Given that Kent is an older white guy, the happy natives enticing the men with sex just jarrs. One could almost say that what we've really got here is a madonna-whore complex, although I think that might be an extreme interpretation. You cannot argue that Kent does not know his subject: according to the book's bio, he spent years in the Solomons working in education and broadcasting. The setting and multi-culti aspects ring true. He is actually a long-published author and sounds like an interesting guy, you can read an interview with him here. So, I'll reserve judgement and hope that the ladies show up, smartly, next time. I'll certainly check out Kent's next offering in the series, One Blood.
As an interesting postscript, I learned from wikipedia that the Solomon Islands went through a civil war in the late 1990s-early 2000s, and are today considered to be a failed state. Or perhaps stillborn. It is interesting to think about that against the backdrop of this book, which looks forward so hopefully toward independence from whitey.