Reading one crime novel set in every country listed in The Times atlas of the world.
Country: American Samoa.
Pago Pago Tango, by John Enright.
The plot: A policeman takes a prisoner on an unauthorised trip into the jungle to look for a corpse that the prisoner says he helped dump. They find it. As the policeman lowers himself down a rope to get a better view, the prisoner is killed by a single high-calibre rifle shot. Awkward. The policeman is put on admin leave, and assigned lowly cases on his return to the department. One of these cases, an apparent burglary at a complex for American ex-pats, leads the policeman into a dangerous web involving porn videos, drug smuggling, multiple murders and corrupt cops.
Where and when: The book was published (by Thomas & Mercer of Las Vegas) in 2012. Enright started work at the American Samoa Community College in 1981 and spent the next twenty-six years living on the islands of the South Pacific.
The Detectives: Detective Sergeant Apelu Soifua is a man with a past. An amphetamine addict during his time ‘off island’ with the San Francisco PD, he is given to periods of introspection and philosophising; he also has a habit of saying “just one more thing”, like a certain television detective who can still be found knocking around on daytime repeats.
Sense of Place: Enright’s island is a place where past and present collide. Early in the book, we hear of Apelu’s grandmother telling old Samoan stories of animals passing as people: “the night-time lover who in the light of day was a rooster or a lizard. The eel that wanted to marry a princess. The woman whose best and only friends were actually fruit bats.” This is a mythical and mystical realm of animals, very different from the packs of wild dogs, feral offspring of the Alsatian, doberman and pitbull guard dogs brought to the island by the “palangi” white men. The island has moments of paradise, when “from deeper in the jungle fruit doves called out to each other in single, long, melancholy notes” while “the time around sunset was called afiafi – fire fire in English – and this time of day, when the cicada chorus came on strong and the jungle birds finished their songs and the last purple light in the clouds turned to moonlit silver, was called afiafi po, the night adjacent to sunset.” But this paradise has a literally ‘dark side’, the name given to the area of slums grouped around the tuna cannery that is the island’s largest employer; a place of brothels, bars and poverty. Even the drug scene reflects the corrupting effect of ‘civilisation’ with the kids moving from locally-grown cannabis to imported crystal meth, or ‘ice’. The book also manages to provide information about traditional boat building, a history lesson on how the United States ‘acquired’ its holding on the islands, and a sociology insight on why marital fidelity is not expected nor infidelity frowned upon in native Samoan culture.
Worth reading? I got a real sense of the island. Recommended if you are interested in South Pacific cultures, or slightly puzzled why there appear to be two Samoas.