And You Are My Island Dream*

We’ve all spent a long time in lockdown or close to it for the past year. But at least we can travel virtually. With autumn closing in in the Southern Hemisphere, and summer vacations tempting the Northern Hemisphere, it’s a good time to explore one of the most popular of travel destinations, Hawai’i. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful place, with much to offer, but don’t let those appealing travel sites fool you. Hawai’i can also be a very dangerous place. A simple look at crime fiction should suffice to show you what I mean.

Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan is a Honolulu-based police detective who made his debut in The House Without a Key. In it, Chan solves the murder of Dan Winterslip, a wealthy man with ‘blueblood’ Boston roots. One possible suspect is his brother Amos, with whom he’d been feuding for years. Another ‘person of interest’ is his cousin Minerva, who came to visit for six weeks, but is still there ten months later. There are other suspects, too, and it ends up being a challenging case. Chan himself is an interesting character. He’s a Chinese-American who, given the prejudices of the time, is not considered quite American, but also not considered genuinely Chinese. He was conceived as an alternative to the unpleasant stereotype of the Fu Manchu sort of character, and he turned out to be a quite popular fictional detective.

Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist whose skills are called on when the police need to identify long-buried remains. And that’s just what happens in Where There’s a Will, which concerns the wealthy cattle-ranching Torkelsson family. Ten years earlier, Magnus Torkelsson’s private plane went down on Hawai’i’s Big Island. Now the remains have been found, and that brings up all sorts of questions. What happened to Torkelsson? Was this an accident? Something more sinister? Oliver is called in to examine the remains and find out what he can from them. His work brings up all sorts of questions and uncomfortable truths that several family members would rather have kept buried.

Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone is based in San Francisco. But in A Walk Through the Fire, she visits the island of Kauai. Glenna Stanleigh, who has the office downstairs from McCone, is filming a documentary on the island; it’s also where her partner’s family lives. She was hoping the filming would go well, but now she’s concerned that someone may be trying to kill either her or a member of the film crew. She wants McCone to find out who’s behind the things that are going on. McCone agrees, and travels to Kauai with her partner Hy Rapinksi. As she starts looking into the matter, she finds that there’s more going on here than it seems. For one thing, Glenna’s partner comes from a powerful and dysfunctional family who may very well have reasons to want her or someone on the crew dead. There’s also the subject matter, which is controversial. There are several threads to untangle with this case. Along with the mystery itself, the novel features some interesting legends and history associated with the island.

In Mike Befeler’s Retirement Homes Are Murder, we are introduced to octogenarian Paul Jacobsen. He’s moved to Honolulu, where he lives in a retirement home called Kina Nani. Jacobsen struggles with short-term memory loss; he can remember things that happened years earlier, but not what happened yesterday. On the advice of his friend Meyer, Jacobsen starts keeping a journal in which he records everything that happens. That way, he can look back at it the next day and be reminded of what happened then. That journal proves to be useful when the body of fellow resident Marshall Tiegan is found in one of the home’s trash chutes. Jacobsen becomes a suspect when it turns out that Tiegan had decided to sue him. Although Jacobsen can’t remember the conflict or the lawsuit, he knows it makes him a very likely candidate for a murderer. He decides to clear his name, and begins to ask questions. And it turns out that he’s not the only one who could have had a motive for murder.

Saskatoon-based PI Russell Quant visits Hawai’I in Anthony Bidulka’s Aloha Candy Hearts. He’s there to spend time with his partner Alex Canyon, who’s based in Melbourne. On his way back to the airport after their visit, Quant meets an eccentric archivist named Walter Angel. Unbeknownst to Quant, Angel slips a cryptic message into Quant’s hand luggage. Soon after, he’s murdered. When Quant finds the message, he works to decipher it, and finds that it leads to some dark secrets that are waiting back home in Saskatchewan.

Interestingly enough, the police detective who investigates Angel’s murder in Aloha Candy Hearts is Kimo Kanapa’aka. He is the protagonist of Neil S. Plakcy’s Mahu series, which also takes place in Hawai’i. It’s a very effective example of ‘crossover’ between two detectives in two different series.

It also goes to show that life in Hawai’i only seems to be peaceful and calm. All sorts of things can happen there. If you read enough crime fiction, you soon learn that it’s not nearly as safe as it seems – at least not fictionally…

ps. The ‘photo is of the lovely public library at Lahaina, Maui. You know you’re a book nerd when you’re in Maui and you’re excited to see the library.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Keola Beamer’s Honolulu City Lights.


11 thoughts on “And You Are My Island Dream*

  1. Very interesting, Margot. I did not realize that so many mysteries had been set in Hawaii. Of course, I have read several of the books by Earl Derr Biggers and I loved The House Without a Key. Unfortunately, at least for me, all of the Charlie Chan mysteries are not set in Hawaii.

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    1. Thanks, Tracy. I’m glad you found the post interesting. Yes, it seems Hawai’i is a much more fictionally dangerous place than people usually think… The Charlie Chan series is a good one, isn’t it? And Honolulu just seems a natural place for the novels. I understand why an author might want a main character to go somewhere else for one or another reason, but I agree with you that Chan’s best when he’s in Hawai’i.

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  2. Margot: Thanks for thinking about Hawaii and crime. I had forgotten Russell Quant visited there. And as for libraries on holidays they are always destinations to me. I have yet to regret visiting a library. On our only visit to Oahu we visited two libraries. The Waialua library was the smallest on the island. Another day I bought a book written by a Hawaii resident and set in Hawaii – Murder Leaves Its Mark by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl. I try to but a book or two from local authors while I am on vacation.

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    1. Those libraries on Oahu sound lovely, Bill. And it’s good to know I’m not the only one who likes to visit libraries in places I go. I remember that you did a review of Murder Leaves Its Mark. It’s making me think of books I’ve read that are set in places I’ve been. Hmm…. thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

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  3. Ha, it still sounds idyllic despite the crime wave! Mind you, that might be because I’m from Glasgow where, as you know, gun-totin’ gangsters run amuck on a daily basis… 😉

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    1. Haha! Yes, FictionFan, I suppose if one is used to gangsters and thugs all the time, a few bodies here and there won’t stop one enjoying a lovely holiday! 😉 And, crime or no, Hawai’i is absolutely beautiful…

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  4. I’m not familiar with any of the authors mentioned, Margot. I should try a Charlie Chan book just for a feel of the character and a Hawaiian setting.

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    1. I’d be interested in what you think of those books, Col. They give an interesting look at the Hawai’i of those times, and at perceptions of different social and racial groups.

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