Monday, February 06, 2012

Graeme Kent, ONE BLOOD: Second in a Lively Series, Solomon Islands

Graeme Kent's series featuring Sergeant Ben Kella of the Solomon Islands Police Force and the determined young nun Sister Conchita has flavors reminiscent of Louise Penny's "Three Pines" series featuring Armand Gamache -- Kent, like Penny, has broadcast experience: in his case, head of BBC Schools broadcasting in the Solomon Islands for a stretch, and later an educational broadcasting consultant for the South Pacific Commission.

And it's irresistible to bring in G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries -- Sister Conchita, like Father Brown, has no doubts about her faith, but she's up against a formidable challenge, trying to persuade an outdated mission order of nuns to open up to the world again. (It's her assignment.) But the Stan Jones mysteries that feature Nathan Active may be the closest parallels to Ben Kella, who, after all, is a hereditary spiritual peacekeeper among the Lau people. As their aofia, he has responsibilities that far exceed ordinary policing. And slowly, he's convincing Sister Conchita that the "native" spiritual beliefs demand her attention.

But the carefully negotiated relationship between Ben Kella and Sister Conchita is far from the center of the action. In the second book in the series, ONE BLOOD (releasing Feb. 7), money, greed, and a callous disregard for both human life and island ecology -- in 1960, when ecology wasn't yet a by-word -- make a deadly combination that opens with acts of sabotage at a logging operation and a dead tourist in the mission church. By the time the two co-investigators (who surprised themselves by crime-solving together in Devil-Devil) realize their cases are related, they've also tangled in with the new American President coming into power: John F, Kennedy, whose naval crew spent time in the Solomon Islands. Is there evidence on the islands of what happened back then? What's it worth? Who will it hurt or help?

You'll get the flavor of this brisk, incisive, and often very entertaining author from a passage in the life of each main character -- first, this scene at Sister Conchita's "open house" at the mission, which the elderly nuns have resisted:
A bulky female American tourist in shorts stretched dangerously across her thighs had stopped in the open doorway and was brandishing a carved model of a turtle above her head.

"Where do I pay for this?" she demanded.

"We must all pay for our transgressions eventually," said Sister Brigid coldly before Sister Conchita could reply, her voice rising and falling like a dagger plunging with deadly accuracy into a body. "How and when lies in the hands of the Almighty."

Not if I get to you first, Sister Conchita promised herself vengefully, squeezing past and emerging from the front door of the two-storey mission house onto the stone terrace leading to the beach and the calm lagoon beyond.
And here is Sergeant Ben Kella, determining what's caused a work stoppage at the logging landing:
"If you know that I am the aofia, then you will know that my duty is to keep the peace among Malaitans," said Kella. "That is why I have come to Alvaro, just in time, I think, to see you preparing to chew on rifle bullets. What is the problem? Why haven't you started work yet? Are you so tired that you have decided to work the white man's hours?"

The Malaitan snorted contemptuously at the implied jibe. "The first work party that left to go into the bush this morning met a kwisi bird," he explained. "It spoke only once. Do you know what that means?"

"Of course," said Kella, comprehending the problem with some relief. The matter was serious, but not has grave as he had feared. "I may have spent many years away from Malaita at the white man's schools, but I still remember our customs. Leave this with me."

He walked back to the big Australian. "They have had a custom sign warning them not to work this morning," he said.

"Am I supposed to be impressed?" exploded the big man. "What those kanakas want is a boot up the backside!"

"You don't understand," said Kella. "Those men are Malaitans, the fiercest warriors in the Solomons." He raised his voice so the technicians could hear him. "You lay a hand on just one of them, and you and every one of your men will be dead on the beach before the sun rises further over the trees, and I'll have a hundred forms to fill in afterwards. I doubt if you're worth it."
Even though Kella finds a solution to the logging impasse, there are more threatening situations just ahead. And some of them will affect Sister Conchita as well.

UK cover
The US covers are at the start of this blog post, and I'm ending with the UK covers, for the sake of a cultural contrast. It's increasingly clear that "American" and "British" are two different languages -- I can't imagine a mainstream American mystery proclaiming "exotic" on the cover, as these UK versions do! Here's a rare exception, then, to the frequent discovery that British covers can show up better than the US designs ... because I would definitely vote in favor of the US ones here, from Soho Crime.

Much more to the point for readers of this series, Graeme Kent knows how to weave a good story and validate the local ways of belief, tradition, and community.

UK cover
If you've collected the Arthur Upfield books, you'll want the Graeme Kent ones on your shelf for a modern contrast. (If you don't know Arthur Upfield's work, or that of Stan Jones, mentioned earlier, you have some great treats ahead.) File this series also under spunky women, and wonderful independent local residents who know a whole lot more than the armed colonizers landing among them. And, of course, under respectable detection methods and marvelous psychological juggling of detective, criminal, and witnesses.

No comments: