By Graeme Kent
Soho, 2012 ($25.00)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
Sister Conchita, the American nun whose curious nature and crime-solving exploits with Sgt. Ben Kella (DEVIL-DEVIL, 2010) got her in hot water with her higher-ups, has been sent to a neglected mission in the western Solomon Islands to take charge while waiting for a new priest to arrive. She is frustrated in her attempts to revitalize the mission by the three elderly nuns, Sister Brigid, Sister Johanna, and Sister Jean Francoise, who seem content to live out their tenure in genteel squalor. Seventeen years previously, in 1943, Sister Brigid and a local guide were involved in finding the surviving crew of PT-109 and leading them to safety. The officer in charge of that ill-fated boat was Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy, who is now poised to become the next president of the United States. Something went wrong during her search; she returned to the guide's village with his murdered corpse, went back to the mission, and refused to talk about what happened. She has not left the sanctuary of the mission since that day.
Sister Conchita's first attempt to restore the mission's ties with the local community by holding an open house goes fairly well until a tourist is killed. The sister had talked to the man shortly before what the authorities claim was an accident, and she has her doubts. The man was frightened, and she believes it was because of the three other "tourists" who were in his group. The men claim to be revisiting the scene of their wartime service, but their story doesn't hold up. They are particularly interested in the islands in the Roviana Lagoon where Kennedy and his men took shelter after their craft was cut in two by a Japanese ship, and Sister Conchita suspects they have an agenda that may prove detrimental to Kennedy.
Sgt. Ben Kella has also been given a temporary assignment in the area, investigating the acts of sabotage and vandalism at a logging operation owned by a powerful international company. The workmen are from Malaita, Kella's home island, and he is able to avert a mutiny because of his role as aofia, or spiritual peacekeeper. There are some who have no respect for either of his roles, and he goes through some rough times while pursuing his investigation.
During most of the story, Sgt. Kella and Sister Conchita work on their particular crimes separately, but join forces when it becomes apparent that the two crimes are linked, and that the key is in the past — the "before times."
Kent has chosen a fascinating setting for his mysteries, the Solomon Islands, and the stories take place at an interesting time in their history, the early 1960's, when the colonial structure is disintegrating and the people are taking charge of their own destiny. Kella represents the struggle between the old ways and the new, an educated man with strong ties to the traditional culture of the islands. Sister Conchita is also a product of two worlds, learning to embrace local beliefs while remaining true to her faith. The two make a unique and colorful team.
The first book in the series is DEVIL-DEVIL.
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