It’s not easy being Ben Kella. As a sergeant in the Solomon Islands police force, as well as an aofia, a hereditary spiritual peacekeeper of the Lau people, he is viewed with distrust by both the indigenous islanders and the British colonial authorities.
In the past few days he has been cursed by a magic man, stumbled across evidence of a cargo cult uprising, and failed to find an American anthropologist who had been scouring the mountains for a priceless pornographic icon. Then, at a mission station, Kella discovers an independent and rebellious young American nun, Sister Conchita, secretly trying to bury a skeleton.
The unlikely pair of Kella and Conchita are forced to team up to solve a series of murders that tie into all these other strange goings-on, in this crime novel with “a fascinating setting” (The A.V. Club).
“A sparkling plot (complete with an unexpected conclusion) and a rich history of the Solomons and their native people. But it’s Kella and Conchita—and Kent’s wit—that makes this unusual mystery work, and readers will eagerly await the next installment.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
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THE GLORY SHELL
Sister Conchita clung to the sides of the small dugout canoe as the waves pounded over the frail vessel, soaking its two occupants. In front of her the Malaitan scooped his paddle into the water, trying to keep the craft on an even balance. Sister Conchita could see the coastal village a hundred yards away. The beach was crowded with islanders. She wondered whether it had been worth the perilous sea journey just to see the shark-calling ceremony when all she wanted was a shower and a meal. Of course it was, she told herself severely. If she intended serving God in the Solomons then she had to get to know everything about the islands.
The half-naked islander in front of her suddenly gave a scream of terror. Turning, he thrust the paddle into the sister's hands and dived over the side of the canoe, disappearing into the frothing white foam. Sister Conchita sat rigid with apprehension, the pitted wooden blade clutched loosely in her hands. Bereft of the islander's control, the canoe started pitching and swinging wildly.
For a moment all that Sister Conchita wanted to do was to cower helplessly in the bucking wooden frame. Then her customary resourcefulness took over. Snap out of it, she thought grimly. You got yourself into this hole, better get out of it the same way, girl. Muttering a fervent prayer, she tightened her grip on the paddle and thrust it with all her force into the water.
For the next five minutes the wiry young sister fought the sea. The momentum of the current was sending her at breakneck speed in the direction of the beach and the watching islanders, but the waves were crashing over the canoe at an angle, buffeting it from side to side. Several times the entire tree shell was submerged beneath the surface, but on each occasion it surfaced sufficiently for the sodden nun, coughing and gasping, to resume her paddling.
Doggedly she kept the prow of the canoe pointing at the beach. After an apparent eternity of choking, muscle-aching effort the shore actually seemed to be getting closer. One final shock of a wave descended on the canoe and hurled it sprawling up into the shallows off the beach.
Half a dozen brawny, cheering Melanesian men in skimpy loincloths splashed into the water and laughingly hauled the canoe up on to the sand. The crowd of assembled islanders broke into delighted applause. Dazedly Sister Conchita stood up and limped out of the beached craft.
Gradually her vision cleared. She blinked hard. Standing in front of her, joining vigorously in the acclamation among the large crowd, was the islander who had discarded his paddle and left her to fight the sea alone. Struggling for breath, Sister Conchita fought for the words adequately to express her opinion of him.
'They've just been pulling your leg, sister,' drawled a contemptuous voice from behind her. 'They wanted to see what you were made of. You didn't do so bad. Most sheilas just stay in the boat screaming bloody murder.'
The nun turned to see John Deacon, unshaven and clad in khaki shorts and shirt, regarding her coolly from the edge of the crowd.
'Mr Deacon,' said Sister Conchita, trying to keep her balance. Deacon was an Australian who managed a local copra plantation. She did not like him, suspecting him of ill-treating his labourers. However, she always tried, she suspected in vain, to conceal her feelings.
'Local custom,' explained the stocky, broad-shouldered Australian laconically. 'Any stranger approaching the beach, the guide jumps overboard. Actually the current is bound to bring the canoe up on to the shore, but if you don't know that, it can be a mite disconcerting.'
'You can say that again,' said Sister Conchita.
'At least you had a go,' acknowledged the plantation manager. 'The natives like guts.'
'Have you come for the ceremony?' asked Sister Conchita politely, trying to change the subject. She did not wish to be reminded too much of her undignified arrival.
The Australian snorted with derision. 'I don't believe in superstition,' he told her. His eyes scanned her tattered, once-white habit. 'Any superstition,' he told her with emphasis. 'I'm here to pick up a cargo.'
Suddenly Deacon was swept aside by a phalanx of island women, offering the nun rough blankets with which to dry herself, together with a husk of coconut milk. In a chattering group they conducted her to a site at the water's edge and waited eagerly with her. An artificial lagoon about twenty yards in diameter had been constructed there with piles of stones marking its edges, and an aperture on the seaward side to allow fish to swim in and out.
As the nun watched, an old man in tattered shorts and singlet emerged from one of the huts and walked down towards the stones. A profusion of ancient bone charms rattled on a string around his neck. A naked small boy of about ten years of age accompanied him.
'Fa'atabu,' muttered an awed woman. She translated for the nun's benefit. 'This one is the shark-caller,' she said, indicating the old man.
Four islanders splashed out into the shallow waters of the shark area. They were carrying large flat stones, which they banged together under the water. Simultaneously the shark-caller started chanting in a high, tuneless voice. The crowd, which had swollen in numbers to several hundred, looked on in expectant silence.
For several minutes nothing happened. Then a reverent murmur went round the crowd. The fins of half a dozen sharks could be seen entering the enclosure.
The men, still clashing the stones together, fled from the water. Women picked up a few baskets of raw pork and placed them at the water's edge before withdrawing hastily. Completely unperturbed, the boy hoisted one of the baskets up on to his shoulder and staggered out with it into the water, to a depth of several feet. To the accompaniment of screams and shouts from the crowd on the shore the sharks began to swim steadily towards the boy.
Sister Conchita found herself clenching her fists at the sight. The boy stood still for a moment. Then he reached up into the basket and started feeding the sharks lumps of raw meat, dropping these into the water just in front of him. As the sharks approached, accepting the food, the boy began to caress them. Throughout, the shark-caller continued his keening.
Sister Conchita looked on, fascinated by the sight. Out of the corner of her eye she became aware of Deacon and two Melanesians carrying a bulky sack along the ramshackle wooden jetty protruding into the sea. A dinghy was tethered there, bobbing in the water. Farther out to sea she could see the Australian's trading vessel at anchor.
The sister did not want to leave the ceremony but she thought that it would only be courteous to say goodbye to the brusque plantation manager. Reluctantly she slipped through the crowd and made her way along the wharf. Deacon and his helpers were trying to load the sack into the heaving dinghy. The islanders were struggling to lower the sack to Deacon, waiting impatiently below. As she approached, one of the Melanesians dropped his end of the bulging sack. It burst open, disgorging a cascade of seashells.
Sister Conchita increased her pace to see if she could help. Some of the shells rolled across the wooden platform and nestled at her feet. The nun stooped to pick them up.
'Leave that; we'll sort it!' ordered Deacon, scrambling up from the dinghy.
Sister Conchita ignored him. She had cradled three shells in her hands and was examining them with increasing excitement and anxiety. She would have recognized them anywhere. Before she had left Chicago she had attended a museum display of South Pacific seashells. The ones in her hands were a delicate golden brown in colour, with a round base tapering exquisitely to a point.
'Are you deaf? I said I'll take those!' shouted Deacon, lumbering towards her.
Sister Conchita was intimidated by the Australian's looming presence but stubbornly she clutched the beautiful shells to her.
'I think not, Mr Deacon,' she said, refusing to take a pace backwards, although every instinct warned her to get away from the plantation manager. 'I believe these are glory shells,' she went on. 'You have no right to be taking them off the island. They're a part of the culture of the Solomons.'
The Conus gloriamaris, or Glory of the Seas, was the rarest of all seashells to be found in the Solomons, sought after in vain by almost every islander. It fetched over a thousand dollars among collectors. Its export was expressly forbidden by the government.
'Mind your own business!' grunted Deacon. 'Or ...'
'Or what, Mr Deacon?' asked Sister Conchita, still standing her ground, although she was conscious that she was trembling. It had been a long time since she had been exposed to an example of such apparently uncontrollable wrath. With relief she realized that a group of village men, attracted by the altercation between the two expatriates, had abandoned the shark-calling ceremony temporarily and were hurrying along the jetty behind them.
'This is a Catholic village, Mr Deacon,' said Sister Conchita clearly. 'I don't think its inhabitants would take kindly to seeing a sister being manhandled.'
Deacon looked at the dozen or so men getting closer. With an impressive display of strength he hurled the sack into the bottom of the dinghy, scattering its consignment of shells.
'I won't forget this,' he promised vehemently, glaring up as he cast off. 'I'm not having some bit of a kid who hasn't been in the islands five minutes telling me what to do.'
'And another thing,' the nun called after 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.'
Deacon was already rowing the dinghy with vicious strokes back towards his small trading vessel. Sister Conchita turned with a grateful and rather tremulous smile to face the approaching islanders. She realized that, as usual, she had just insisted on having the last word. It was a failing she was well aware of and would have to take to confession yet again.CHAPTER 2
Sergeant Kella sat on the earthen floor of the beu, the men's meeting-house, patiently waiting for the ghost-caller to bring back the dead.
Most of the men of the coastal village had managedtocram into the long, thatched building with its smoke-blackened bamboo walls. According to custom, a small wooden gong had been struck with a thick length of creeper to summon the assembly.
Kella could hear the women and children of the remote saltwater hamlet talking excitedly outside as they waited for news of the proceedings to filter from the hut. Most of the men were eyeing him with suspicion as he sat impassively among them. A touring police officer would not normally have been allowed inside the hut, but he was present in his capacity of aofia, the hereditary peacemaker of the Lau people.
Kella hoped that Chief Superintendent Grice would not hear about the detour he had made to this village. Back in Honiara his superior had been explicit in his instructions.
'You're going to Malaita for one reason only,' he had told Kella. 'You are to make inquiries about Dr Mallory, nothing else. After your last little episode over there, I said I'd never send you back. But you speak the language. I take it that you can ask a few simple questions and come back with the answers?'
Hurriedly Kella had assured the police chief that he could. After six months sitting behind a desk in the capital he would have promised almost anything to get out on tour again. Now here he was, only two days into his journey, and already he was disobeying instructions.
The village headman entered the hut. He was a plump, self-satisfied man clad in new shorts and singlet and exuding the confidence of someone who owned good land. With a few exceptions, the Lau area chieftains were not hereditary but were chosen for their conspicuous distribution of wealth. This man would have achieved his position for the number of feasts he had hosted, not for any fighting prowess.
The headman cleared his throat. 'We are here to find out who killed Senda Iabuli,' he muttered grudgingly in the local dialect. Plainly he had not wanted the meeting to take place. 'To do this we have sent for the ghost-caller, the ngwane inala. He will tell us who the killer is.'
The ghost-caller was sitting with his back to the wall, facing the other men. He was in his sixties, small and emaciated, his meagre frame racked periodically with hacking coughs. He wore only a brief thong about his loins. His face and body were criss-crossed with gaudy and intricate patterns painted on with the magic lime. Barely visible beneath the decorations on his face were a number of vertical scars, slashed there long ago when he first set out to learn the calling incantations. Laid out on the ground before him were two stringed hunting bows, some leaves of the red dracaena plant, a few coconuts and a carved wooden bowl containing trochus shells.
According to the gossip Kella had managed to pick up since his arrival at the village, the ghost-caller had been summoned to investigate the sudden death of Senda Iabuli, a perfectly undistinguished villager, an elderly widower with no surviving children.
Iabuli's first and only claim to notoriety had occurred a month before. Early one morning he had been on his way to work in his garden on the side of a mountain just outside the village. He had, as always, crossed a ravine by way of a narrow swing bridge consisting of creepers and logs lashed together. As he had made his precarious way to the far side, a sudden gust of wind had caught the old man and sent him toppling helplessly hundreds of feet down into the valley below.
The event had been witnessed by a group of men hunting wild pigs. It had taken them most of the morning to descend the tree-covered slope into the ravine to recover the body of the old villager. To their amazement, they had discovered Senda Iabuli alive and well, if considerably shaken and winded. His fall had been broken by the leafy tops of the trees, from which he had slithered down to end up dazed and bruised on a pile of moss at the foot of a casuarina tree.
The old man had been helped back to the village, confused and shaking, but apparently none the worse for his experience. For several weeks he had resumed his customary innocuous existence. Then one morning he had been found dead in his hut.
Normally that would have been the end of the matter, but for some unfathomable reason a relative of Iabuli had demanded an investigation into his death. This was the family's right by custom and had caused the headman to send for the ghost-caller. Kella had heard of the events and had invited himself to the ceremony.
The ghost-caller picked up one of the red dracaena leaves and split it down the middle. He wrapped one half around the other to strengthen it. Then he placed the reinforced leaf in the carved bowl. Next, he shuffled the two stringed bows on the ground before him. Each was a little less than full size, fashioned of palm wood, with strings of twisted red and yellow vegetable fibres. The bows represented two Lau ghosts, the spirits of men who had once walked the earth. The ghost-caller threw back his head and started to chant an incantation in a high-pitched, keening tone.
The calling went on for more than an hour as the caller begged the right spirits to enter the beu. They had a long way to come, for the souls of the dead resided on the island of Momulo, far away. Suddenly the chanting ended. The caller stiffened, his back rigid and his eyes closed.
'The ghosts ride,' murmured the headman, nodding sagely, as if these events were all his doing. Some of the elders nodded obsequious agreement. The custom man before them was now possessed of the spirits of the departed agalo.
'Who comes?' demanded the ghost-caller. Spasms racked his body. Voices began to emerge from his mouth. There were two of them, speaking in different pitches. Kella had been expecting them both. The ghost-caller had taken no chances, adhering to the main ancestral ghosts of the region, ones everyone present would know. He had selected Takilu, the war god, and Sina Kwao of the red hair, who had once killed the giant lizard which had threatened to devour all of Malaita. Only a ghost-caller was allowed to address these spirits by their names.
As each ghost spoke, the relevant bow quivered on the ground. The caller was good, thought Kella. The police sergeant had been watching the emaciated man closely, and was sure that there were no threads connecting the weapons to the ghost-caller, which could be twitched surreptitiously to make them flutter. He could only assume that the custom man was drumming on the ground with his iron-hard heels to set up the necessary vibrations.
'Oh Takilu, can you tell us anything about the passing of Senda Iabuli?' quavered the ghost-caller.
Neither bow moved. An audible sigh of relief went round the room. If the war god was not involved it probably meant that the old man's death had been due to natural causes. Now there should be no internecine blood quarrels to divide the village.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Devil-devil"
Copyright © 2011 Graeme Kent.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 THE GLORY SHELL,
2 THE GHOST-CALLER,
3 THE DEATH CURSE,
4 CUSTOM MAGIC,
5 THE BONES TABU,
6 LOFTY HERMAN,
7 WHITE MAN'S WAYS,
8 THAT'S WHERE ALL THE DANGER IS!,
9 ARTIFICIAL ISLANDS,
11 SIKAIANA WOMEN,
12 COCONUT BOSS,
13 PRAYING MARY,
14 CAVE OF DEATH,
15 PETER ORO,
16 BEYOND THE REEF,
17 MURDER TWICE OVER,
18 THE CUSTOM WAY,
20 LABOUR LINES,
21 NIGHT TIDE,
22 TRAILING SPEARS,
23 BROTHER JOHN,
24 THE STRAIGHT PATH CEREMONY,
25 DISTRESSED BRITISH SUBJECT,
26 HIGH BUSH,
28 MARCHING RULE,
29 GOLD RIDGE,
30 THE CANARIUM TREE,
31 CUSTOM SIGN,
32 HUMILITY AND OBEDIENCE,
33 PARAMOUNT CHIEFTAIN,
35 KILLING GROUND,
36 SERVICE MESSAGE,
37 ONE SIMPLE AMBUSH,
38 GRADUATION CEREMONY,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sister Conchita is new to Malaita. In fact, she's realatively new to being a nun, but she's wiry, resourceful, determined, and outspoken. In her training she studied island religions and Solomons culture although she has yet to come to terms with how island customs can live side by side with her Catholicism. On her first day on Malaita she stops an Australian trader from removing protected glory shells from the island. She unwittingly makes an enemy who will try to kill her several times in the future, to make sure she never thwarts him again.Ben Kella on the other hand was born on Malaita and has a dual leadership role. Since he was eight years old he has been the recognised aofia, the leader of the the Lau people of Malaita Island. In addition he represents the law, for he's a sergeant in the Solomons police force. He stands as bridge between the two cultures but often neither side sees him that way. Ben was brought to adulthood by the Catholic mission on Malaita, and he has an overseas university degree. But he has also rejected the Christian way, deciding he can only follow the "custom" way. He's an imposing figure, black, very big in many ways. The islanders call him a white black.Kella had some problems prior to this novel, causing the death of a missionary, and was recalled to head office in Honiara for six months. Now he's being sent by his Chief Superintendent back to Malaita to find a missing American anthropologist, and told to focus just on that mission. Two days into his journey and already he is disobeying instructions. A village headman has asked him to assist in discovering what lies behind the unexpected death of an elderly widower. This involves him in participating in a session with a ghost-caller, bringing back the dead. From then we know that life is never simple if Ben Kella is around.For a relatively short novel, DEVIL-DEVIL is complex. At the beginning I kept feeling that perhaps there had been an earlier novel, but in retrospect I don't think there was. It was just that the author had a certain amount of back-story that needed to be revealed as the plot developed.Part of the novel's complexity comes from the fact that the author is showing us crimes such as deaths and theft in a Melanesian "custom" setting. There's an interesting but somewhat peculiar relationship developed between the policeman, who must be middle-aged, having fought in the war against Japan in early 1940s, and the young nun, just in her twenties. Adding to the complexity is the network of relationships and obligations that bind the islanders to each other, which outsiders like Sister Conchita and Kella's Chief Superintendent have great difficulty in understanding.I found the final few pages a bit of a let-down and a bit tedious. It seems to rush the final explanations by telling rather than letting the reader form these conclusions from what they've seen. Nevertheless an interesting novel that holds that attention all the way.
First Line: Sister Conchita clung to the sides of the small dugout canoe as the waves pounded over the frail vessel, soaking its two occupants.It is 1960 in the Solomon Islands, which saw some of the fiercest fighting during World War II (Guadalcanal among other battles). Memories of those days are still vivid. Sergeant Ben Kella of the Solomon Islands Police Force knows those days quite well, but he has many other things on his mind. Educated by the whites and now a member of their police force, Kella is still the aofia (spiritual peacekeeper) of the Lau people. His dual roles mean that neither the British colonial government nor the native peoples trust him 100%.New to the islands is Sister Conchita, a young Catholic nun from Chicago who chose her name because she thought she was being posted to South America and wanted to fit in. She wants to learn native customs and to help these people as much as she possibly can. Her vows of poverty and chastity won't be problems for her, but her vow of obedience may be a backbreaker. Her impetuous desire for doing the right thing means bent and broken rules everywhere she goes: " In any case, it had always been her philosophy that it was better to apologize profusely after the event than to neglect an opportunity when it arose. "Sergeant Kella has been busy. Within a matter of a few days, he's been cursed by a shaman, stumbled across evidence of an uprising, and been unable to find a missing American anthropologist. When he stops at one of the mission stations, he finds Sister Conchita trying to bury a skeleton on the sly. Little does he know that he'll soon be teaming up with Sister Conchita to solve a series of murders that tie in with all these strange happenings.Plain and simple-- I loved this book. Author Graeme Kent was a Schools Broadcasting Officer in the Solomon Islands during the 1960s, and he immersed me in the culture of the place without being heavy-handed or pedantic. He also painted a vivid portrait of the Solomons during World War II with a very few strokes... just enough to fire the imagination and illuminate portions of the plot.The two main characters, Sergeant Ben Kella and Sister Conchita, are two of the most interesting characters that I've come across recently in crime fiction. With their differences in culture and temperament and their similar penchant for doing what they think right regardless of the prattling of their superiors, they are going to make a wonderful crime-fighting team. (They're pretty good at cracking jokes, too.)I can't wait for more books to appear in this series!
Great first novel to a new series! Sister Conchita is my kind of girl wild at heart, I would love to hear a bit more description of Sgt. Kella to be more visually able to picture him! I just love any kind of crime / mystery books!
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 fre
This was the best mystery I've read in awhile. I read at least one book a day and often two. These two protagonists are strong, caring individuals. The exotic setting and customs descriptions flesh out and add to the feel of the story. I look forward to more of Kella and Sister Conchita adventures.