Saturday, September 28, 2013

One Blood

If you read Crime Pays regularly, you'll know that I'm a big fan of settings.  Sometimes I read books just because I like to immerse myself in that world.  It's like taking a trip there - I find myself thinking about Berlin, or Laos, or Seoul, or wherever, at down times during my day, pondering what it would be like to live there, then.  This is the main motivation for sticking with Graeme Kent's series set in the Solomon Islands.  One Blood is the second installment in this series, featuring a native policeman named Ben Kella and an American missionary nun named Sister Conchita.

That's actually not entirely fair, because it makes it sound like there are no other redeeming qualities to these stories.  And there are - the characters are, if many, still strongly drawn, and the writing is solidly unobtrusive most of the time (this is a good thing).  The plot itself is a bit tortuous and unnecessarily layered.  This story takes place in the western Solomons (a map, a map, my queendom for a map).

oh my god I am never going to finish this.

Back to our regularly scheduled program.

The threads in this plot include environmentalism (foreign companies taking advantage of the local natural resource, notably through destructive logging practices), local politics and a Solomons independence movement, Sister Conchita's efforts to shape up a missionary outpost and its set-in-their-ways nuns, and - tying it all together - what really happened with the crew of John F. Kennedy's PT 109 after the boat was sunk and before they were rescued.  This last plotline was obvious from the get-go, and clearly derived from 2004 effort to discredit US presidential candidate John F. Kerry via the now-infamous swiftboat campaign.  In what I think will be a standard plot turn of all Kella and Conchita books, Ben sleeps with the gorgeous dame, awfully casually in my opinion.  A couple of bodies pile up, and it really takes to the very end - you know, that scene where one person explains what happened to the other, thereby solving the puzzles and tying them neatly together - to figure out why.  I find this technique something of a cop-out, as it basically allows an author to write a big action scene that doesn't make a ton of sense, then neatly explain everything to the reader.  In other words, it is a way to tie all the plot threads together at once rather than weaving them throughout the story.  Feels a bit lazy, I guess.  But then, I'm not writing this stuff so who am I to judge how hard that is?

That said, Kent has a good sense of the import of detail to character.  Consider this description of Jake Michie, the unhappy Aussie manager of the troubled logging concern:
"He was a ruined avalanche of a man in his forties, some six feet six inches in height and broad-shouldered, but with all his physical attributes beginning to melt and sag downwards.  Jowls swung from his chin like wind chimes, and a once impressive chest slumped obscenely to his stomach.  While his body drooped, the big man's face seemed to have a life of its own and had expanded sideways, although at the same time his features had shrunk to those of a carelessly constructed snowman, with two buttons for eyes, a truncated carrot of a nose and a mouth that was little more than a perfunctory slash.  His head was completely bald.  He reminded Kella of an extra in an Ed Wood horror movie.  (50)
It's overkill - I can't recall that any other character gets this detailed treatment.  You wonder if Kent had been saving all these ideas in a little file, just waiting for the right character to come along.   But even as I roll my eyes a little, I think it works.

And it has to be noted that Kent has a strong attachment to the place of the Solomons, and presents the setting as both a fabulous backdrop a la South Pacific but also as integral to the story as the human characters.  In other words, the story is what it is because of where it is - it wouldn't be the same elsewhere (does that make sense?).  The logging operation that Michie is charged with running is on the island of Alvaro, part of the Roviana Lagoon, also, apparently, where the PT 109 action took place.  And remember, we're only in the early 1960s, so not that far removed from the war.  The whole area was directly involved in the conflict so the memories and physical reminders are yet another layer in the story.  I think I'll leave One Blood with some of Kella's impressions as he paddles toward Alvaro, early in the story.
    "Kella stopped paddling and looked ahead at the ruined logging island of Alvaro rising jaggedly out of the sea ahead of him . . . The last time he had seen Alvaro had been during the war.  Then it had been as beautiful as any of the other atolls in the Roviana Lagood, and it had remained a tranquil haven for its inhabitants during the fighting. . . The passage of a decade and a half had certainly changed that.  Now the island was little more than a tortured scar, suppurating on the surface of the lagoon.  The coral reef that had once surrounded it had been torn from the seabed, leaving only a few jagged, blackened stumps.  The water surrounding them had been transformed into a slurping cauldron of hollowed-out oil-stained debris and floating mangled logs and rubbish.  The narrow strip of beach was little more than a series of dumps for abandoned, rusty machinery cannibalized almost into extinction.  Huge patches of discolored diesel oil mottled the scuffed surface of the sand. . . The coastal mangrove swamps, with their slender, distorted trees, being of no commercial value, were still in place and continued to ooze stinking mud and thrust their tangled roots grotesquely into the air, like the clutching talons of drowning witches.  The mouth of a sluggish river coughed gobbets of red mud into the sea where its banks had been eroded by bulldozers.  Smoke drifted over the island from dozens of bush fires lit to clear land in the interior."    (46-47)
So, again, does the author have another file "good ideas for describing damage of logging on islands?"  But he makes his point, and you keep reading, now a convert to environmentalism!

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