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by Graeme Kent
Soho, February 2011
288 pages
ISBN: 1569478732

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Ben Kella is a sergeant in the Solomon Islands police force with a university degree. He is also an aofia, a sort of paramount chief and high priest of the Lau people, tasked from childhood with keeping the peace. These would seem to be complementary roles, but the time is 1960, Solomon Islands is still a British protectorate, and the police force is British-run.. Kella's superiors take a dim view of his commitment to his own people and culture, though they have to admit it gives him a unique advantage in dealing with police matters.

Sister Conchita is a young missionary sister, recently posted to the Solomons, perhaps because she is very far from the model of the submissive, obedient nun. She is eager, awkward, and quite brave, anxious to discover what she can about her new surroundings.

As neither Kella nor Sister Conchita quite fit into the standard moulds set out for them, they make a surprisingly attractive pair in this debut novel in a projected series. Kella is sent off with strict instructions to find out what has happened to a white anthropologist who hasn't been seen in several weeks and not to deviate from this single task. But as Kella knows, nothing is quite so simple in the outer reaches of Solomon traditional society and one enquiry has a habit of leading to another. When he finds the good sister surreptitiously attempting to re-inter the skeletal remains of a long-dead Australian beachcomber and then, shortly thereafter, being pursued by a stalker with a rifle, he accepts his responsibility both as aofia and as policeman to protect her.

There was a time in crime fiction annals when an exotic setting was perhaps the Nile Valley from a tourist point of view. But those days are long past. Now intrepid armchair travellers can go virtually anywhere by book and find both an entertaining puzzle and, if they are lucky, an insight into a land or culture they are unlikely ever to experience face to face. Kent has set himself a difficult task in DEVIL-DEVIL in that he not only has chosen a setting largely unfamiliar to Western readers, but he has set his novel fifty years ago, when Solomon Islands was still a British protectorate and independence was still well in the future.

On the whole, he succeeds very well. The ways of the Melanesian people of Malaita are recorded with sympathy and respect. The cultural conflicts experienced by both his protagonists in their separate ways are convincing and not over-dramatised. This is, it must be said, a debut novel and as such, there is some awkwardness of expression and exposition, but on the whole it works. As the novel progresses, it picks up speed and sureness, which bodes very well for the next book in the series. I certainly am looking forward to reading it.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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