Reviewer Richard Mann: Richard is a retired CPA, college instructor, and paralegal in Ogden, Utah. He has published over 500 magazine articles and a commercially published e-book, including several book review columns in magazines. He loves to read mysteries, westerns, humor, selected non-fiction, and computer books. To read more from Richard check out his BLOG.
AUTHOR: John Enright
PUBLISHER: Thomas & Mercer
ISBN: 978-1612185033 Trade Paperback
This is the fourth book about Detective Apelu Soifua, a police detective in American Samoa. Three years ago, I read the first book in the series, Pago Pago Tango, because I had spent three weeks in Samoa on a business trip many years ago. There are really two Samoas. American Samoa is an American territory. Samoa, or the Independent State of Samoa, was formerly known as Western Samoa. They are only 40 miles apart. Surprisingly, Pago Pago has a somewhat different feel from Apia, in independent Samoa. It is fun to have even a small familiarity with the exotic setting of a mystery novel.
While I liked the first book in the series, it was not fascinating enough to make me look for the rest of the series. When this one came up for review, it seemed a good time to see how the series had matured. The book has the same general feel as the first one, but the storytelling has improved. I should also note that you need not read the preceding books in the series to enjoy this one.
The story starts when a couple of kids report finding a freshly dug empty grave deep in the jungle. It proceeds through a sequence of deaths that the police write off as suicides or arising from natural causes. Only Apelu suspects that there is something deeper than meets the eye going on. Because these are not official investigations, Apelu pursues them in odd moments of spare time.
When I left Apelu at the end of book one, he was married with kids. We find him in this book living with a younger Samoan woman while his undivorced wife and children have returned home to independent Samoa. His girlfriend has a baby during the course of the story.
As the story develops, Apelu consults with Laura, a palangi (white, off-islander) lady medical examiner. Together, they notice unexplained or ignored aspects of the deaths. They send samples to California for HIV testing, but no results ever come back. As Apelu and Laura become friendly, Laura meets his girlfriend. They become fast friends; eventually Laura spends more time with the girlfriend than with Apelu, who seems to become an unnecessary third wheel in his own home.
During the investigation of the first two deaths, I noticed that the pace of the investigation of these cases is spot-on for the way things occur in Samoa. There is no urgent press to find out what happened. Apelu remains aware and waits for developments to develop. He knows the necessary information and connections will reveal themselves in good time. One good technique he uses is to stop in at the bar and idly wonder about things for an hour every day or two. After fifty pages or so, I found myself fully immersed in the pace and cultural ambiance of life in American Samoa. I then had a firm grasp of what it feels like to have as much of an understanding of local Samoan affairs as any palangi can, given our own cultural biases. It felt quite similar to the feelings I had during my visit there so long ago.
Occasionally, a few uneventful months pass between chapters. The final events take place a full two years after the opening scenes. During that time, the connections between the many deaths emerge as things become increasingly dreary in Apelu’s life. I won’t tell you anything that would spoil the surprises, but you can expect life for Apelu to become thoroughly unpleasant.
In fact, by the end of the story, Apelu has decided to quit the police force and spend his time farming on his “plantation,” a few acres of overgrown slopes well into the jungle. The way the book ends, it is likely to be the last of series. I would rather have the series continue, but it would take quite a turnaround in Apelu’s attitude and situation.
One option for continuing the series would be to let the young police officer who has been mentored and helped by Apelu take over the series. It would be fun to observe Ropeti as he learns police work and matures. I’m not sure I could take much more of the dreariness that overtook Apelu.
The strengths of this book include an accurate portrayal of Samoan life as it appears to a palangi; strong, interesting characters; an intricate if slowly developing plot; and several outstanding descriptive passages. I also enjoyed a throwaway line on page 98: “Absence makes the mind go ponder.”
Several things about the story bothered me, both in this book and in the first one. I fully realize that these items are my personal quirks rather than the way many people feel, but I mention them for the few people who may share my outlook. I have a hard time identifying with point of view characters who do not have rigorous integrity. Apelu, a police officer, smokes marijuana and lets occasional people get away with things that he shouldn’t. He lives with a girlfriend while still married and has a child with her, yet he doesn’t seem to really care much about her. I also do not enjoy stories where the main character suffers unfair blows that plunge him into despair without there being a recovery by the end of the book. If I want that sort of thing, I’ll go read literature, not mystery novels. Again, these would not be universal points of bother; many will rightly scoff at such a silly, old-fashioned attitude.
If you have any desire to learn about Samoa and can enjoy a leisurely pace in solving the mystery, you have an excellent chance to enjoy this book.