One Blood is a murder mystery, and the second installment in a mystery series (after Devil-Devil), but it’s also an anthropological study, and a primer on the mythologies of the Solomon Islands. The plot catalysts are a tourist’s sudden death and a series of terrorist attacks on a logging company, but Graeme Kent wisely uses his protagonists and a fascinating setting to drive the book forward. Instead of simply serving up a mystery lightly spiced by exotic surroundings, One Blood delves deep into the post-colonial era of the 1960s, showing how life on the islands, among native and white residents alike, changes as they move toward independence.
Those shifting ways of life are embodied in the book’s sleuths: Sister Conchita, a white American nun transplanted to a decaying mission, and Sergeant Ben Kella, a police officer and aofia, a sacred peacemaker. Luckily, neither character is defined by religion. Conchita is a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church, but she’s also a feisty young woman who has trouble keeping her unorthodox thoughts to herself. Kella is a holy man, but also a police officer in a semi-colonial regime. Together, they negotiate the conflicting aspects of their faiths and personalities as they root out a conspiracy growing around them.
The conspiracy involves attacks against an Australian logging company Kella has been sent to investigate, a vicious murder in Sister Conchita’s monastery, and John F. Kennedy, who is about to win presidential election. Knowing the headstrong nun will try to solve the murder with or without his help, Kella enlists her as his partner to help connect the dots. The plot, while well-constructed, is largely an excuse to tour the political and cultural landscape of the post-British era. Tribal leaders now vie for official positions in the looming independent government, while a new generation of Western-educated islanders—Kella himself holds multiple degrees—use foreign practices to undermine old patriarchies. But the ghosts of the past still haunt the Solomons, whether it’s the dead men who helped Kennedy as he hid from the Japanese in World War II, or Kella’s ancient ancestors, unable to protect him while he’s far from home.
Providing cultural information inside a narrative can be tricky, and for the most part, Kent doles out particulars fluidly. Sometimes, though, the prose can feel textbook-esque, especially when Kent explains Kella’s aofia status. Understanding the aofia’s role as peacemaker of his people is integral to the plot and to Kella as a character, but Kent relies too heavily on direct statements of fact instead of bringing out Kella’s cultural position in his interactions with other islanders. Likewise, the descriptions of Sister Conchita can be too on-the-nose, directly stating that her past is mysterious instead of hinting at it.
Prose issues aside, One Blood wraps up its riddles in a satisfying, surprising way, while providing a glimpse at how the Solomon Islands made their way to independence in 1976. Kent is planning more in the series, but his compelling picture of the chaos of a nascent country is more likely to build a fan base than his clever plotlines.