The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty
The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books, 2014) answers the old chestnut. When an author has just finished one of the best thriller trilogies of the last decade, what does he write next. The answer delivered here is completely fascinating. In one sense, it could not be more different, yet underneath the literal text, it’s a different perspective on the same themes. So first a few words about The Troubles Trilogy featuring Sean Duffy. Our hero is the Catholic who doesn’t fit into the majority Protestant police force. In the eyes of many, he’s not welcome in many parts of the community. (Northern) Ireland has been bedevilled by the sectarian divide between the Protestants (who hold themselves out as British Unionists) and Catholics (who identify themselves as Irish nationalists) for the last few centuries. Since people tend to become more emotionally involved in conflict once the sides are drawn up based on religious beliefs, this has been one of the world’s most enduring social battlegrounds with discrimination rife and violence never far from the surface. Even today, people still hide behind protective barriers in some parts of Belfast, Derry and other flashpoint areas.
In this new book, we meet Lieutenant William Prior who’s serving as a military police officer in South Africa during the Second Boer War. He happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the people bottled up in one of the British concentration camps make a break for freedom. In the heat of the moment, he sees it as his duty to prevent the escape and protect his troops. Coming under attack, he orders the troops to use a Maxim machine gun against the malnourished and unarmed internees. Many are killed but, such is the morality of the time, he’s congratulated for doing what was necessary to protect the men under his command. This leaves him suffering what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder and he finds a way of getting out of the army with no chance of ever being re-enlisted. By a circuitous route, he ends up theoretically responsible for running a rubber plantation in the Deutsch Neu Guinea.
This is a man who found he did not fit in the British army and therefore moved to a German-controlled colony where, equally, he did not fit. Moving forward a few years, we find he’s gone “native”, living with a local woman in the bush. His peaceful life is disrupted by the arrival of Hauptman Kessler who wants a man with experience as a police officer to accompany him to a nearby island where there’s been a suspicious death. The occupants are what we would describe as a cult. Although the inspirational leader and the woman supplying the money to make their encampment viable are German, there are several other nationalities represented in their ranks. This gives Prior, Kessler and the real-world Bessie Pullen-Burry an interesting group of people to investigate. Bessie is along as an observer, and later writes a book about her experiences in the German colonies of New Guinea, describing several of the characters we meet in the first part of this book. The basis of the cult’s lifestyle and belief system is that they will achieve physical immortality by living a life dominated by the sun. They spend many days simply bathing in its light, only eating coconuts and bananas which grow at the top of the trees and therefore capture the sun’s goodness. This will purge the body of toxins and, helped along by substantial quantities of heroin, their meditation will produce a lifespan of at least one-hundred years. It’s unfortunate the man who died had not been there longer. With only ten weeks on the regimen, he had yet to develop the physical and spiritual strength to throw of the malaria alleged to cause his death. The fact the local doctor performed an autopsy and found evidence the man was drowned is dismissed as the incompetent ravings of a Jewish doctor. The fact Prior has also seen the peri-mortem bruising to the shoulders where he was held face-down in the water is also dismissed as fantasy. The group of cultists is adamant the man died of malaria. What, they demand, would their motive be for killing a new recruit to their order? Initially, of course, no-one can suggest any motive. Yet, as Prior picks at the story these cultists tell, one of two inconsistencies emerge. The result has considerable power and remains consistent with the historical records, such as they are.
So this is a book about a man who morally and culturally finds himself on a no-man’s island to investigate a cult. The very fact of his presence inevitably represents a challenge to the obsessional belief system which holds the group together. He’s therefore an enemy. When he turns to Hauptman Kessler, he finds no support. The politics are not to rock the boat. The Germans are in competition with the Dutch when it comes to administering colonies and getting a financial reward out of the plantations. If it was even hinted there was a cult murdering people, this would be very damaging to the Reich’s reputation. Malaria is the preferred answer for everyone. Even Bessie seems to be siding with the cultists, surprisingly adopting their nudity which disconcerts both Prior and Kessler who expected her to remain a “proper” English woman. The author is skilfully inviting us to consider just how individuals should act when confronted by groupthink. The British army had their view of how to keep order in their concentration camps. The German administration is embarrassed by what this group led by Germans is doing. Albeit for different reasons, the cultists want to be left alone. So should Prior actually take the investigation seriously? If he does come up with evidence of possible wrongdoing, should Kessler tell the Governor? The answer to these and other questions is presented in a slow-burning, but ultimately powerful, historical mystery which is recommended.
Follow this link for An interview with Adrian McKinty.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.