17 April 2011

Review: DEVIL-DEVIL, Graeme Kent

Published Soho Press 2011
ISBN 978-1-56947-873-8
281 pages
Source: my local library

Publisher's blurb
It's not easy being Ben Kella. As a sergeant in the Solomon Islands Police Force, as well as an aofia, a hereditary spiritual peacekeeper of the Lau people, he is viewed with distrust by both the indigenous islanders and the British colonial authorities.
In the past few days he has been cursed by a magic man, stumbled across evidence of a cargo cult uprising, and failed to find an American anthropologist who had been scouring the mountains for a priceless pornographic icon.
Then, at a mission station, Kella discovers an independent and rebellious young American nun, Sister Conchita, secretly trying to bury a skeleton. The unlikely pair of Kella and Conchita are forced to team up to solve a series of murders that tie into all these other strange goings on.
Set in the 60's in one of the most beautiful and dangerous areas of the South Pacific, Devil-Devil launches an exciting new series.

My take:
 
Sister Conchita is new to Malaita. In fact, she's relatively new to being a nun, but she's wiry, resourceful, determined, and outspoken. In her training she studied island religions and Solomons culture although she has yet to come to terms with how island customs can live side by side with her Catholicism. On her first day on Malaita she stops an Australian trader from removing protected glory shells from the island. She unwittingly makes an enemy who will try to kill her several times in the future, to make sure she never thwarts him again.

Ben Kella on the other hand was born on Malaita and has a dual leadership role. Since he was eight years old he has been the recognised aofia, the leader of the the Lau people of Malaita Island. In addition he represents the law, for he's a sergeant in the Solomons police force. He stands as bridge between the two cultures but often neither side sees him that way. Ben was brought to adulthood by the Catholic mission on Malaita, and he has an overseas university degree. But he has also rejected the Christian way, deciding he can only follow the "custom" way. He's an imposing figure, black, very big in many ways. The islanders call him a white black.

Kella had some problems prior to this novel, causing the death of a missionary, and was recalled to head office in Honiara for six months. Now he's being sent by his Chief Superintendent back to Malaita to find a missing American anthropologist, and told to focus just on that mission. Two days into his journey and already he is disobeying instructions. A village headman has asked him to assist in discovering what lies behind the unexpected death of an elderly widower. This involves him in participating in a session with a ghost-caller, bringing back the dead. From then we know that life is never simple if Ben Kella is around.

For a relatively short novel, DEVIL-DEVIL is complex. At the beginning I kept feeling that perhaps there had been an earlier novel, but in retrospect I don't think there was. It was just that the author had a certain amount of back-story that needed to be revealed as the plot developed.

Part of the novel's complexity comes from the fact that the author is showing us crimes such as deaths and theft in a Melanesian "custom" setting. There's an interesting but somewhat peculiar relationship developed between the policeman, who must be middle-aged, having fought in the war against Japan in early 1940s, and the young nun, just in her twenties. Adding to the complexity is the network of relationships and obligations that bind the islanders to each other, which outsiders like Sister Conchita and Kella's Chief Superintendent have great difficulty in understanding.

I found the final few pages a bit of a let-down and a bit tedious. It seems to rush the final explanations by telling rather than letting the reader form these conclusions from what they've seen. Nevertheless an interesting novel that holds that attention all the way.

My rating: 4.3

I'm counting DEVIL-DEVIL in the 2011 Global Reading Challenge (admittedly I've modified my Australasian section to read Australasia/Oceania to accommodate it), the British Books Challenge for Graeme Kent is British, and among my new-to-me authors.

Other reviews you might like to check:
International Noir Fiction
Reviewing the Evidence
Joe Barone's Blog

1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Kerrie - Thanks very much for this review. I've heard about this one in a couple of other places, too, and it sounds really interesting. It's certainly an area and an era I don't know enough about...

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