Two Crime Fiction Reviews in Exotic Locations

I am so far behind in my book reviews and my Global Reading Challenge that I will write 2 reviews today and link them to two different continents.

The first is for North America/ United States, the second for Australasia/Oceania.  Both have a musical theme in their title, although there are few musical references in the books themselves.  I have noticed that I don’t seem to read a lot of American crime fiction – perhaps because I overdosed on it in earlier years. I’m trying to change that and to introduce Canadian writing into my diet as well (which seems much more reassuringly European).

MeanWomanMean Woman Blues by Julie Smith

What sold this novel to me was the setting: New Orleans. I am a huge jazz fan (and love Creole cooking), so I’ve always wanted to go to that city.  However, there isn’t that much of New Orleans or jazz in this novel, which is a pity.  The action takes place partly in Texas, which is where Skip Langdon’s arch-enemy, Errol Jacomine, has fled and reinvented himself (with the help of plastic surgery and elocution classes). Skip is a middle-aged police detective with problems of her own, but she has no doubts that Jacomine is dangerous and is more than a little obsessive about tracking him down.  The narrative skips around, putting us in the minds of many from the rich cast of characters. But  it’s the battle between the two equally stubborn and ruthless main protagonists which is the main focus here, and, sadly, there are quite a lot of hurt and damaged people along the way.

I would have liked more of the New Orleans atmosphere to pervade the book, so my favourite part of it was the pursuit of the grave-robbers. These are thieves who target the monuments from the city’s cemetaries to sell them to antique dealers.  Overall, it was a quick, easy read, but not one that will linger in my mind.

Unlike the next book, Pago Pago Tango by John Enright.

pagoThis one appealed much more to the anthropologist in me, since it contains many descriptions of landscapes, beliefs, stories and cultural differences between Westerners and islanders in American Samoa.  This is a world that very few of us have access to: paradise in appearance, but with an underlying friction that could explode at any moment.

Apelu Soifua is a native cop who has spent a good part of his adult life in San Francisco, but returned to Samoa to help his father after a stroke. He is deeply in love with his homeland, taking every opportunity to go barefoot among the banana plantations and mango trees. He believes a young convict who claims he assisted in dumping the body of a white man.  They both go searching for the body in the jungle and find the half-eaten corpse up on a ledge.  Before they can recover the body, the young man is shot and falls to his death.

Apelu is therefore punished for his mistake by getting relegated to all the routine enquiries. When he gets called in to investigate a small-scale burglary in the white enclave, he is at first bemused by the fact that only the VCR and some videos are missing. However, the owner is a big shot at the local tuna factory, the major employer of the island, and he and his wife seem to be contradicting each other about the burglary. Apelu soon uncovers a trail of drug-smuggling and conspiracy with consequences more far-reaching than he could have foreseen.  He mounts an elaborate sting operation with potentially very dangerous outcomes.

The plot is good, if a trifle predictable, and the pace of the investigation is very different from the police procedurals we might be accustomed to in Europe or the States.  What I will really remember, however,  is the image of Western powers changing and damaging the culture and natural environment for the sake of corporate greed.  The author describes very eloquently the downsides of globalisation: ‘when the tuna runs out, the island will be sucked dry and tossed aside’.  Yet the author does not idealise native Samoan culture either, he describes its appetite for lies, corruption and drugs.  He sees it not as better or worse than Western culture, simply different.

‘Every culture has to have pride in itself for something’ and Apelu concludes that Samoans prefer ‘the safety of inclusion rather than any Western hope of individuation’. Yet, paradoxically, he also believes in the ‘solitude of the thumb’, that it is stronger than all of the fingers taken together.

Portion of the dock area at Fagatogo, Pago Pag...
Portion of the dock area at Fagatogo, Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa with Rainmaker Mt. (Pioa Mtn.) in the background. Photographed by Eric Guinther. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)