Sergeant Ben Kella plays two roles in the Solomon Islands in the early 1960’s. He is a member of the Solomon Islands Police Force and he is an aofia, a spiritual peacekeeper of the Lau people, a role for which he was chosen when he was a child. Kella is an educated islander, hand-picked by his teachers at the Catholic school to attend a university in Australia. From there, he went for further training in police procedures in Great Britain as well as to work with the NYPD in Manhattan. All of these steps have guaranteed that Kella is accepted by neither the islanders nor the whites, especially those members of the British government who still control the Solomon Islands.
It is the early ‘6o’s and tribal customs still hold sway over the majority of islanders who try to balance the old ways with the Christian education and conversions to Christianity that have been changing the society and culture of the islands. Sister Conchita of the Marist Mission Sisters has no such conflicts. An American and a Catholic by birth, she is a missionary by choice, a choice made willingly and bolstered by a deep commitment to the people she serves in the Pacific Islands. Bound by a vow of obedience to her bishop and to the director of her order, she is, nonetheless, blatantly outspoken and inclined to act before giving full consideration to the consequences. Believed by her bishop to be fully occupied by her various duties – looking after the native sisters, exporting the carvings made by the boys in the mission school, keeping the books for the mission station, supervising the medical center, inspecting the other schools in the region, and running the farm – Sister Conchita has no time to get into trouble.
Sister Conchita and Ben Kella could not be more different in their approaches to life but when they are brought together through strange circumstances, they make a formidable pair.
The American nun, new to the islands, makes an interesting first impression when she takes on John Deacon, one of the few white ex-patriots living in the Solomons. John Deacon smuggles antiquities by mixing priceless objects with copies made by school boys destined to be sold in down-market gift shops in Australia and Hawaii. Being called out by a nun, a Praying Mary, in front of his hirelings earns Sister Conchita a powerful enemy.
Ben Kella has a very different problem. Professor Mallory, an American anthropologist, is missing. He hasn’t been seen since he went into the mountains to find a pornographic icon that is worth a fortune. Ben’s life has been seriously complicated by a bones curse, a cargo cult uprising, a person who was murdered twice, and the discovery of the body of a man who disappeared during the Japanese occupation.
It is while Kella is watching the mission cemetery, looking for whoever was unearthing bones for the curse, that he meets Sister Conchita smuggling a skeleton into the cemetery, rather than out of it. There is just too much trafficking in bones, curses and all. The story is full of interesting people living in a part of the world very much underrepresented in crime fiction.
Ben Kella and Sister Conchita are great additions to Soho publishing’s list of memorable characters. They fit right in with those created by Leighton Gage, Cara Black, Jassy Mackenzie, David Downing, Matt Beynon Rees, and Peter Lovesey among others.
DEVIL-DEVIL is more than a great mystery. Graeme Kent provides an absorbing look at the world in 1960, a world only fifteen years beyond World War II. The Allies were successful in driving the Japanese out of Guadalcanal but only after six months of heavy fighting. Ben Kella is in his early thirties in the book but was a soldier fighting with the British against the occupying Japanese forces when he was only fourteen. Communication among the far-reaching communities in the Solomon Islands are conducted by radio each night. The British still control the islands as part of the British empire.
The author makes frequent reference to the Marching Rule, which may be a corruption of the term Maasina Ruru which refers to emancipation from the colonial government by the British. The movement may well have grown out of the respectful treatment the islanders received from African-American soldiers with whom they worked. The islanders formed the Solomon Islands Labor Corps which assisted with the allied war effort between 1942 and 1946. Even more fascinating are the references to “cargo custom”. There is a “cargo cult” in the Pacific Islands that developed from the islanders experience with the American GI’s. Airfields were built on the islands to allow tanks, refrigeration units, guns and ammunition, communication instruments, clothes, and food to be delivered to support US troops. Later, some of the same things were dropped from cargo planes onto the islands. To the islanders, these were gifts from the gods, especially one particularly generous one known as “Jon Frum”. The dark skin natives believed all these benefits came from black American soldiers who marched off the islands to battle but would be reborn and return to lead the islanders against their oppressors. It is thought that the name of this deity came from solders who introduced themselves as “John from America”. There is no question that cargo cults exist; whether the story about Jon Frum is true isn’t important. It is simply a really good story and a believable one in that the name “John” is so simple to remember.
I do love the internet and I love writers who love the countries about which they write and so teach their readers about the people and their customs. Who says mysteries are mindless entertainment?
Sister Conchita is a Marist Missionary from the Boston area. My uncle, also from the Boston area, was a Marist priest. He joined the Marist order in order to do mission work but, instead, was kept in the United States as a professor of church law, teaching in seminaries and universities. Two friends in his ordination class, who were also in his high school graduation class, were assigned to the Solomon Islands after becoming priests in 1945. This was truly a hardship post nearly 70 years ago.
Soho publishes books that are unfailingly entertaining and absorbing, showcasing the works of authors who live and breathe the atmosphere of the countries they bring to life on the pages of their books. If it is from Soho, it is worth reading.