From Norn Iron to the South Seas
Fiction The Sun Is God Adrian McKinty Serpent's Tail, tpbk, £11.99, 288 pages, available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
Fresh from the triumph of his acclaimed Sean Duffy trilogy, which followed the exploits of a maverick RUC detective in conflict-ridden Northern Ireland, Adrian McKinty, in this new departure, chances location, personnel and period to recreate events on a remote island in the South Seas in the first years of the twentieth century.
There is a change of gear and pace too, which will disappoint those readers he had attracted as almost cult devotees of the quick-fire, intrepid and hip detective constable who is replaced as the resident sleuth by a much more laconic, less memorable Yorkshire man, Will Prior.
This time, Co Antrim-born McKinty engages with a historic and unsolved crime on a remote German colony, and offers a solution in a narrative which is as much an anthropological study of a cult and of early twentieth-century German colonialism.
While it may be read as such, and with great interest, the detail tends to clog the narrative, which robs the detective story of pace and focus.
As a study of crime and detection, it is a decidedly slow-burner. There are overtones of Conrad and Wilkie Collins, and with real historical figures supplemented by extras to sustain the narrative.
Prior, who had served in the South African War, is racked with guilt for his part in the massacre of African detainees in a British concen tration camp. Cashiered from the army and ostracised by white society, he seeks refuge from his demons on a run-down plantation in a remote German colony in New Guinea.
Here, he is pressed into service by the authorities to help solve mysterious deaths among the Cocovores, a nudist colony of sun-worshippers on a much smaller island, who seek immortality through sunbathing and a diet of coconut meat laced with heroin.
Prior visits the colony along with a lumpen (and almost caricature) German official, Hauptmann Kessler, and eccentric English author, Bessie Pullen-Burry (a real figure who subsequently published her own memoir), and establishes, to his own satisfaction at least, that the two who had died had actually been murdered by the other Cocovones, all of whom were complicit.
He and Kessler, mainly through the efforts of the redoubtable Bessie, were lucky to escape with their lives from attempted murder, burning at the stake and pursuit by the cultists to report their findings to the Governor. However, the realpolitik of German colonial expansionism decreed that no action be taken.
The ear for dialogue that served McKinty so well in his Irish stories – the narrative impulse and the sense of place – are less noticeable here. Conversation is stilted, the German characters in particular are close to stereotypes, there is difficulty in establishing convincing motivation, and it is somewhat surprising to see the ready availability of materials for colour photography at that time in a jungle outpost.
McKinty spent some days on the island for research, and it shows. There were no people there, and that shows too. His many admirers will cry for the return of Duffy.