BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
WHEN YOU LOOK AT A MAP of the South Pacific you can see a neat chain of islands stretching between Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
From the east and travelling northwest there are the big islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Guadalcanal, Malaita, Russell, Isabel, New Georgia, Choiseul and Bougainville. The history, romance and intrigue that this eclectic mix of nomenclature conjures up are collectively known as the Solomon Islands.
Apart from the big islands there are nearly a thousand others. The people are mostly Melanesian, like their brothers and sisters to the west and southeast; although there are some Polynesian islands, like Sikaiana, to the north.
The Solomon Islands was half-heartedly administered by the British from the 1920s until it gained its independence on 7 July 1978 - encouraged by and nearly three years after Papua New Guinea.
The incongruity in the equation is, of course, Bougainville, which became part of Papua New Guinea. No matter how you turn the map around Bougainville looks a lot more comfortable as part of the Solomon Islands.
G W Kent’s novel, Devil-Devil, is set in 1960, just as anti-colonialism is beginning to foment. There has already been one anti-British-come-cargo cult uprising on Malaita and the languid expatriates throughout the island chain vaguely realise that their days are coming to an end.
That takes a while though; self- government and independence had a longer and lazier gestation in the Solomon Islands than it did in Papua New Guinea - working up the enthusiasm was obviously hard work there.
Some of the problems in this extended run-up period had similarities in Papua New Guinea, not the least being a disparate collection of widely dispersed tribes.
The main points of friction in all this independence preamble (and aftermath) are the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita. Malaita was a target of Queensland blackbirders collecting labourers for the cane fields in the late 1800s.
The well-travelled Malaitans are smart people who still dominate the public service and business sectors and have a large presence in Honiara, the capital on Guadalcanal. This friction between the Guales and Malaitans later precipitated the troubles of the 1990s.
The main character in the novel is Sergeant of Police, Ben Kella. He is a well-educated Lau Malaitan with a contrary streak that upsets his dithering British superiors. He is also a traditional aofia or peacemaker. To many of his own people he is simply a “white blackfella”.
Sent from Honiara to Malaita to locate a missing American anthropologist he begins to stumble across a series of murders, both past and present, which somehow seem to be linked.
He also stumbles across a supporting cast of diverse characters; the grizzled Australian planter/trader, a charismatic chief, a headmaster with a secret, a crooked Chinese businessman and an unconventional Catholic nun from America called Sister Conchita (she took the name because she thought she was going to be posted to Mexico).
To me this soiree of characters seems to have been plucked off the shelves of the used detective novel store. The author might also have picked up a bargain-basement narrative and plot in the same shop.
Using island intuition, knowledge of custom and an acute deductive mind Ben Kella begins to connect the dots. Along the way he unearths the usual suspects, greed and avarice.
Keith Jackson, take note; for eight years the author ran a school broadcasting service in the Solomon Islands. He was also an education advisor to the South Pacific Commission. This is his fifteenth novel.
The blurb on the back cover of the book says, “Move over Botswana – the Solomon Islands are the new place to be!” The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency it is not; Alexander McCall Smith has got nothing to worry about.
Nevertheless, and because of its setting, it is an interesting novel which will ring a few bells for Papua New Guineans and Australian expatriates.
The author tells us that the people in the backwaters of the Solomon Islands used to regard Port Moresby as the big smoke and looked forward to the international flights from there. Imagine that!