Enright, John. Pago Pago Tango.

Las Vegas: Thomas & Mercer, 2012.

This is one of those books where the plot of a mystery, though competently worked out and interestingly written, nevertheless takes a back seat to the setting and the characters. The place is American Samoa, a fifty-five-square-mile rock a long, long way from anywhere, which the U.S. acquired in 1900, thanks to the need of the U.S. Navy for a coaling station. But only a tiny fraction of the population has ever been palangi (white) and the needs of everyone else were mostly ignored for a very long time — except for inflicting fundamentalist Christianity on the popultion.

Detective Sergeant Apelu Soifua, a veteran of the San Francisco PD (so he knows what he’s doing), spends his days trying to enforce what law there is while simultaneously trying to balance his culture’s dependence on consensus rather than authority and also keep his boss out of his hair. The Commissioner is a high-level chief who knows almost nothing about police work — but he’s a political appointment, so what can you do, besides wear the dress blue lava-lava every Friday to keep him happy?

Apelu gets called to investigate a break-in at the home of one of the executives of the island’s big tuna cannery (their principal employer, after the territorial government) and finds that what was taken was mostly a stack of videotapes. Well, at least he was able to find a working squad car (except for the radio), so he’s ahead of the game. He also meets Debra, the slightly ditzy young daughter of the exec in question, a connection which leads him farther and farther into the island’s darker corners. Along the way, we meet TJ, a likeable young drug dealer who is looking after Debra, and the crew of the reproduction ’alia catamaran Apelu and his buddies are designing and building, and Spike Tusisami, the captain in charge of the Samoan DEA — not the federal agency, the local cheap copy — and Lupe, a young Samoan journalist with whom Apelu has a flirtatiously professional relationship but who obviously would like more. Then there’s the elderly New York lawyer who has been on the island so long, people have almost forgotten he’s not a native, and the ex-Peace Corps guy who never went home and who is now involved in some very shady goings-on.

The pace of the story is pretty leisurely, just like everyday life in Samoa, and Enright, who lived there for a quarter-century himself, enjoys feeding the reader insightful bits and pieces of local history, culture, psychology, philosophy, religion, and anything else he thinks might be of interest — and most of it is. If you think Samoa in the 21st century is anything like Gauguin’s Tahiti, you will be quickly disabused.

The homicide rate is amazingly high, though Samoan killings are nearly always spur of the moment and the culprit usually gives himself up to his chief. (All Apelu has to do is write the report.) Drugs are a major problem, especially meth (a result of taxing beer beyond the reach of most young islanders). The cannery has exterminated most of the life in Pango Bay, the beaches and reefs are choked with nonbiodegradable plastic trash, and no one seems to want to take responsibility for anything, especially the government. Not a place you would particularly want to live, really, and most of the palangi are, in fact, only there on short contracts.

There are certain weaknesses in the author’s handling of the complex mystery, and some parts of the narrative seem forced, but that’s common with first novels. All in all, Enright (who has won several awards as a magazine journalist) does a very good job of putting the reader deep inside the life of Samoa and I’ll be interested to see what the future holds for Sgt. Soifua.

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