Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cuckoo for Coconuts--The Sun is God, by Adrian McKinty (with apologies to General Mills)

Adrian McKinty, most of whose previous novels have centered around Irish identity in one way or another, has cast that question aside for this outing. The Sun is God (reputed to be the dying words of painter J. M.W. Turner) takes what is known of a real life cult of German nudist sun worshippers as a departure point for a murder mystery.

It's 1906 and Will Prior, a Yorkshireman who has washed out of the British military police after being demoralized by an atrocity he became inadvertently  involved in during the Boer war, has now washed up on the shores of German New Guinea, where he hopes to lead a quiet life running a German rubber plantation. Of course, there'd be no story if everything was that simple. He is summoned by the local powers that be to look into the mysterious death, or deaths, on the nearby island of Kabakon, which has been taken over by one August Englehardt, the charismatic leader of a small group of people who believe that sun worship and a diet of coconuts will lead them to immortal life.

It may actually be an advantage here if you are new to McKinty's work, as this is some ways from his more usual "Tough guy fiction at its gory, heartstopping best" (as The Miami Herald has dubbed it). In fact, it reads in parts like an Agatha Christie novel, with its cast of suspects neatly gathered--or trapped--on a tropical island. And even the era has more of a Golden Age of Mystery feeling. It's interesting in our century to look back at the beginning of the last one, and realize that there may be many unusual things about this time and place, but before two world wars, it would not have been unusual for a disillusioned Brit to throw in his lot with German colonists.

And in fact, Prior and the Cocovores (as the islanders dub themselves) have one large thing in common, which is their disillusionment with the modern era and the shape of things to come. From our present place in history, it would be hard to say that they were entirely wrong.

Christie might have captured some of the quirks of the characters, but it is McKinty's mark upon the genre to have Will discussing Schopenhauer's bleak philosophy with one of the other characters. It makes sense--it's because they share Schopenhauer's verdict on life that these people have come to this island in the first place.

I  did have a bit of trouble with the way Will consistently denigrated one of the other characters, though only in his head, of course. I won't say who--it will either be obvious to you or it won't. If you find yourself with similar qualms, though, all I can advise you is to not give up on the story because of that. Suffice it to say that you will have your restitution.

(I was reading the British edition of this book, and the American one won't be out until early September. If you're waiting for that, here's a picture of the American cover, so you won't walk right past it, as it's quite a different take on things.)


  1. Seana

    I missed this. Many thanks for the review. Yup Will certainly misjudged Bessie didnt he?

  2. I was just happy to know that I hadn't misjudged you.

    I think that little twist was my favorite part.