Garry Disher. Port Vila Blues. Allen & Unwin, 1995. ISBN 1864480254
Port Vila is my favourite town in the Pacific. If anyone is looking for a pacific island holiday I always recommend Vanuatu over the other places I’ve been (and that includes a lot of the major touristed ones). If you are after the lie by the pool resort holiday, Vanuatu has resorts to match Fiji and New Caledonia. It has some of the best food in the Pacific, in part due to the lingering French influence, bolstered by the fantastic seafood you usually expect in the islands, plus the mouth-watering addition of locally grown Vanuatu beef and good Tanna coffee. There is plenty of island adventure possible in the form of waterfalls, cultural visits, diving and snorkelling, even an active volcano on the southern island of Tanna and one of the world’s best dive sites further north off Espiritu Santo. And the ni-Vanuatu people, like people all over the Pacific, are warm and welcoming.
On top of all of that, Port Vila is a nice town to wander around in. If I’m being honest, I couldn’t truly say that of many of the major towns I’ve visited in the Pacific. They all have their charms and their interesting features, but Port Vila has a waterfront area you can easily access, fabulous fresh food and handicraft markets, a marina full of yachts in the middle of town, some not bad shopping, a great little museum and cultural centre, and on a lazy afternoon you can watch the locals play boules in the middle of it all. At night you can visit any of the fabulous restaurants, go to a nightclub if that is your thing, or visit the night market without feeling unsafe. Sorry to my Solomon Islander, Samoan, Palauan and Fijian friends, Port Vila wins.
Have I convinced you? Strangely enough, it appears that very few fiction writers have been convinced of the possibilities of Vanuatu, at least not ones who write in English. Despite the long period of colonialism (Vanuatu became independent in 1980), the sordid history of blackbirding, the huge number of Americans throughout the islands during World War II, and the steady stream of Australian tourists and tax dodgers, all of them forming, one expects, links between Vanuatu and the western world, almost no one has seen fit to set a novel in this wonderful place.
Crime is not my favourite genre of fiction. In looking for a genre to read my way into Port Vila, crime wouldn’t normally be my first choice. But Port Vila Blues is set in the modern Vila that I knowa little, rather than the historical depictions in the other couple of books I’ve found (interestingly, all three by Australian writers).
The plot line of Garry Disher’s Port Vila Blues could be a allegory of Australians’ relationships with Vanuatu. A corrupt Australian magistrate uses his aid-funded role as a circuit judge in the islands to launder money and other stolen goods in Vanuatu’s tax haven. His network draws on the thriving tourist trade – regular plane loads of Australian and other tourists touching down to spend a brief time in tropical paradise. In his lovely home in the hills above the marina at Port Vila he believes himself more or less untouchable, above the law, able to manipulate and use those around him as he sees fit. That includes everyone from local politicians to his ni-Van housekeeper Grace. But the ni-Vanuatu aren’t helpless creatures without agency of their own, and they know what is in their interests and what is not.
While Judge De Lisle’s set-up in Vanuatu is key to the plot, it’s not the centre of the action. Instead, we follow career criminal Wyatt, mostly back in Australia, as he tries to find out why someone wants him dead over a stolen Tiffany brooch, and what might be in it for him. While there’s a bit of obligatory sex and violence, the main focus is Wyatt’s always-on suspicion and readiness, his careful preparation for every possibility. For a guns and murder crime novel Port Vila Blues actually felt quiet and thoughtful for much of the time. The blustering of the dumbly violent Baker, who stumbles blindly into the middle of a crime much more sophisticated than anything he has in mind, is an interesting counterpoint.
Disher’s writing is purposeful and workmanlike. There’s little waxing lyrical about ocean vistas and tropical sunsets here. Rooms and landscapes are noted in careful detail, but it’s all in the context of Wyatt’s wary sizing up of his surroundings, making sure he has at least two escape routes planned. It’s a well-paced page turner and an easy enough way to spend a couple of lazy reading afternoons. And it gave me an excuse to try to sell Vanuatu to you. Perhaps I’ll just have a peek at the current airfares myself…