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Enright's Pago Pago Tango — A review

Detective Sergeant Apelu Soifua recently solved a multiple-murder case, but you haven’t seen coverage in the Samoa News (or heard it on KHJ). The murder case involved, among others, a tuna cannery executive, a Samoa News reporter, a local palagi attorney, a fight in the parking lot of a local nightclub, and a taxi driver who works out of the airport taxi stand.

Was the case kept quiet because drugs were involved? Was it corruption in the Department of Public Safety that made this case too hot to touch?

The cat is out of the bag now.

The fictional bag, that is. Author John Enright’s first mystery novel, Pago Pago Tango, features the aforementioned Detective Soifua and the aforementioned crimes.

It also features a large cast of local characters and local settings. The feature, however, is our uniquely American Samoan way of life.

Enright lived here for almost 30 years before moving to Rhode Island a few years ago. He weaves wry observations on modern Tutuila life through his book. The plot allows for plenty of small diversions that allow the author to share his insights about Samoans, palagis, and the way they relate to one another.

As a professional folklorist and historian, Enright also peppers his dish with plenty of stories that reach back in time, all the way to when Tagaloa pulled the Samoan islands from the deep and including notable events since that time, such as the educational TV period in the 1960s and the 1980 cable car disaster.

Pago Pago Tango is a Samoan mystery novel with similarities to the Navajo mystery novels of Tony Hillerman, who has sold about a kajillion books that featured the endearing and idiosyncratic Native American police officer characters operating on their home turf (the Arizona and New Mexico Indian country).

Another fine example of the modern cross-cultural mystery novel are the books of Alexander McCall Smith, who writes bestsellers based on his endearing and idiosyncratic Botswana lady detective characters operating on their home turf (Botswana, Africa).

Enright hopes to join the ranks of such authors, using Pago Pago as his special place. Have you ever wished you could read a great mystery book that included the Cable Car, the Mt Alava jeep trail, the Malae ole Talu, State Department Housing, the “dark side” in Atu’u, Korea House, Tisa’s Barefoot Bar, Maliu Mai Resort, and a few dozen other locales (some thinly disguised and others not)?

Do you crave literary references to Samoan dogs, the ASG Christmas pageant, the way we refrigerate bodies at LBJ (don’t ask) and many other elements that make life here so unique, challenging and entertaining?

Wait no more. Head to a computer, navigate to, and order yourself a copy of Pago Pago Tango ($8.97 plus shipping).

Enright has already written four mysteries featuring Detective Apelu Soifua, a returned Samoan who spent decades in the U.S. and 7 years on the San Francisco Police force before coming home for a funeral and never returning to Cali. Sound familiar? We all know returned Samoans struggling to reconcile their love for their homeland with the new ways of seeing and thinking that comes from years spent in the U.S. Now we get to read about one such passive-aggressive Samoan, buried deep in the ASG/DPS system, navigating his own way through American Samoa’s mix of fa’apalagi and fa’aSamoa.

Pago Pago Tango is the first in the Apelu Soifua series to be published and has been available for sale the past two months on, where it has been reviewed 42 times and garnered a 4.2-star rating (5-star is the highest).

Among the reviewers is long time local resident Brant Judy, who posted the following review on Amazon: “I loved the book. Having lived as an outsider in Samoa even longer than the author, he hit a home run in describing the culture and daily way of life there.”

Enright wrote the series back when he lived in American Samoa. That the story was written several years ago is evident by the reference to beat-up black-and-white patrol vehicles belonging to DPS. Although I remember those days, they seem a million years ago, before the era of flash, huge DPS vehicles we live in now.

Not everyone loves American Samoa’s own Columbo. One reviewer, who has never been to American Samoa, wrote: “[American] Samoa is made to seem like a wasted, destroyed paradise. The people, especially the police, are presented as inept, indifferent, partly corrupt bumblers. [For example,] a vitally important 911 call goes unanswered because "Everyone at headquarters was . . . out front watching the concert." [Another example is when the author writes:] "Every downpour turned the harbor and its near-shore ocean into a toilet bowl of Styrofoam, plastics, disposable diapers, and everything else that the overcrowded villages dumped into their streams to dispose of…”

The reviewer concluded, “I have no doubt some of it is true, but it is presented in a way that makes the Samoans seem stupid or lazy or just totally indifferent thugs…”

No Samoan has yet reviewed the book, and almost all of the palagi who posted a review on Amazon loved it, but you’ll have to read the 255 pages to form your own opinion.

Apelu himself is aware of the problem. At one point he gently chides a palagi who is critical of Samoan ways by saying, “everybody eats, and only outsiders make observations about table manners.” In other words, it isn’t polite to denigrate another person’s culture.

Yet Enright apparently believes in the wisdom of a Samoan proverb he quotes: “Uliuli ae le po lago.” Yeah, he may be the ugly American, but he wasn’t writing this book just to kill flies.

He had some points he wanted to make.

At one point, Apelu’s best friend Tau warns the detective about his Western ways of bucking the system at DPS and working things out by himself: “you’re too alone out there, brah. Who you trying to be, the Lone Ranger? You gotta get yourself back inside the malo.” (By malo, Tau meant the Samoan order of things, the Samoan chain of command.) “You going fiapapalagi, brah. Wake up.”

On page 200, Enright observes: “Every culture has to have pride in itself for something. It all depends what gets chosen to be proud about… Samoans like to claim that what made them different [from other cultures] was their willingness to live inside the fa’aSamoa. This way entailed a sense of self and self-worth, based much more upon the safety of inclusion than upon any Western hope of individuation.

“To be was to belong, to be included, to fit inside a family, a village, a malo that entitled your identity. It could get quite complex, but that was the base measure of the distance between personal heaven and virtual hell—one’s belongingness. That was first, no matter what bullshit came with it.”

As a friend and contemporary of John Enright, I enjoyed the book and have just one question: when will we able to spend more time with Detective Apelu Soifua solving crimes the special American Samoan way?