With its blend of exotic locale, suspenseful plot, and carefully crafted three-dimensional characters, Devil-Devil is a promising start to Graeme Kent’s debut mystery series. Set in the Melanesian Islands in the 1960s, Devil-Devil is about Sergeant Ben Kella’s unraveling of a smuggling operation that also leads to the deaths of several people. The nun Sister Conchita is an unlikely partner, and they actually work out clues apart from each other for much of the novel. They’re often partners at a distance, but they aid each other in solving a string of bizarrely related murders, tying them together with an operation that involves smuggling ancient tribal artifacts.
Besides being a sergeant in the Solomon Islands Police Force, Kella is an aofia, a “hereditary peacemaker of the Lau people.” As such, he is respected by the other islanders, and sometimes feared. It’s often difficult for Kella to keep the two roles he plays separate from each other, to both please his white British superior officers and to serve his people in various ways, like adjudicating custom disputes - disputes involving custom, or cargo cult, rules, law, and magic. While he learned about custom ways and trained to be an aofia, hand-picked at the age of 10, he also gained the attention of the Catholic missionary school and was educated in the hopes that one day he would return and might get a job in the government and become a leader of his people.
Sister Conchita makes waves right from the first chapter of the novel, “The Glory Shell.” The place she first comes ashore happens to be a copra plantation which Australian expatriate John Deacon runs. Kella’s old friend has leased the land from the sergeant, though Kella plans to eventually get it back and give it to one of his five brothers. Deacon and Kella fought the Japanese together in WWII, when Kella was just fourteen, along with someone else who plays an extremely important role in the novel, the chieftain Pazabosi. Sister Conchita discovers that Deacon is smuggling rare glory shells worth thousands of dollars and tells him
“Just in case you have any more illegal shells in that sack, I shall be asking the
Customs Department in the capital to examine it when you get there.”
Sister Conchita’s character reminded me of Katherine Hepburn’s indomitable spirited performance in movies like The African Queen and True Grit, unafraid to stand up to men who try to intimidate her and are used to getting their way. This attribute of hers makes her an interesting foil to Sergeant Kella. He treats her, and any other person who he feels is unfamiliar with the custom laws of the Solomon Islands, as neenas, or those under his protection.
When Kella first makes direct contact with the young American nun Sister Conchita, she is secretly trying to bury a skeleton - the skeleton of a white man, who has disappeared for eighteen years, and whose bones have seemingly been brought up to the surface following an earthquake. The man has been shot in the back of the head. Kella finds himself cursed by a ghost caller, and he stumbles across evidence of a cargo cult uprising, all in his attempts to locate an American anthropologist who had been scouring the mountains for a priceless treasure - his original mission. Things are rarely cut-and-dried in the Solomon Islands. What on the surface seem to be unrelated crimes, Keel and Sister Conchita learn are intricately linked together.
How are the deaths of an elderly islander who has miraculously survived a fall from a great height and that of Peter Oro, his next-of-kin, related? What do either one of them have to do with the death of the white man so many years ago? Why would someone attempt to shoot Sister Conchita and Sergeant Kella while they try to escape in a swamp? What knowledge does Sister Conchita have that someone is willing to kill her in order to silence her? What has happened to the white anthropologist, and is he the one responsible for stealing the missing pornographic icon, or is it someone else? Who are the bigger devil-devils - the white British men at the end of their colonialist days, or certain devious, scheming islanders who want to gain power and throw the expatriates out of their islands?
Devil-Devil is a fascinating mystery that will have you on the edge-of-your-seat. It’s a great introduction to the series, and I look forward to reading more Sister Conchita and Sergeant Kella mysteries in the future.