SOME YEARS AGO I had the pleasure of working with the late August Paul Harold Freund. Harold, as he liked to be known, was a pioneering Lutheran missionary who wrote a book called Missionary Turns Spy.
It was about his wartime exploits rescuing survivors from the Rabaul garrison and as a coast watcher in the Vitiaz Strait and on the New Guinea mainland.
My relationship with Harold did a lot to broaden my appreciation of the role and aspirations of the missionaries in Papua New Guinea.
Keith Dahlberg’s novel suggests that these aspirations may be wider and more bizarre than we realise. The Samana Incident could easily be called ‘Missionary Turns Detective’.
The novel is set in modern day Papua New Guinea and deals with the problems of illicit drugs and gun running. It is a sequel to an earlier novel based in South East Asia called Flame Tree.
The “Samana” in the book sounds very much like the Summer Institute of Linguistics headquarters at Ukarumpa in the Eastern Highlands.
One of the key characters is a medical doctor sent undercover to help solve a puzzling crime. One thing leads to another and he becomes caught up investigating a scheme to import ais (ice) or methamphetamine and high powered guns into the country.
I know for sure the guns are going in but I’m not sure about the ice.
The doctor is not strictly speaking an ordinary proselytising missionary but he does his fair share of spreading the word as he works towards assisting honest cop, Lieutenant Jason Kerro, nail an Asian and Australian drug cartel.
Coincidentally the author is a medical doctor with long experience working in Thailand and Burma and has briefly spent time in PNG with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. He is also an avid reader of mysteries, thrillers and biographies.
His brief sojourn in the Eastern Highlands clearly made a lasting impression. He is currently writing another novel based on the mining industry in PNG. Most of his information seems to come from his reading and maybe from the internet.
I’ve come across a couple of other novels by writers who have had limited or no actual experience in Papua New Guinea.
When I contacted the author of the novel Bird of Paradise, which I reviewed for PNG Attitude, she freely admitted to never having visited the place; it was just exotic enough and conveniently located for her purposes.
It is the small things that give these books away and ultimately spoil the reading experience. The devil is in the detail, as they say, and even though Keith Dahlberg has been in the country briefly and has ongoing friendships there and an obvious abiding and ongoing interest some of the details let him down.
On one occasion the doctor detective attends to a man with an injured ankle who “was hunting monkeys yesterday and caught his foot in some kinda hole”. Unless the man was hunting mankis for some obscure reason the reference is most disconcerting.
Elsewhere the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary inexplicably becomes the “Papua New Guinea Royal Constabulary”. The author is American so his constant reference to “cell” phones, as opposed to mobile phones is slightly more forgivable.
So too is the naming of his lead Papua New Guinean character. Lieutenant (?) Kerro’s unfortunate connotations with hurricane lamps bothered me all the way through the book.
I also guess he had his reasons for disguising Ukarumpa as “Samana”; ‘The Ukarumpa Incident’ doesn’t really have the same ring to it but I’m curious about why what I think is either Kundiawa or Kainantu has to become “Kundioka”, whereas Mount Hagen, Madang and Port Moresby retain their respective nomenclature.
His characters are authentic and there is none of that condescension that you expect from American authors writing about so-called third world societies. The plot is also tight and logical without any distracting twists or diversions.
More often than not he gets the details right. His portrayal of corruption and nepotism in the police force has a reassuring ring of authenticity. I guess corrupt cops in Thailand or Burma are similar to corrupt cops in Papua New Guinea and everywhere else.
That an elderly American doctor from Kellogg in Idaho is enthusiastically writing novels about Papua New Guinea has a curiously satisfying feel to it. After all we’re not getting too many novels written about the country by Papua New Guineans - someone has got to do it!
What do you reckon Russell Soaba?