It genuinely felt like this book was written by one person for the first 60% and another for the last 40%. Maybe this has something to do with the book being a reissue from 2015, telling the first chronological story of the Koa Kane Hawaiian Mystery series, and perhaps being updated for 2021. What I know for sure is that there’s a definite cognitive dissonance from the first sixty percent, where Koa sounds like a moderately racist, moderately misogynistic white man in disguise, with the last forty where he wonders whether non-native Hawaiians have undergone sufficient sensitivity training in their professional fields for saying milder things than he himself has expressed or let pass without comment. I was certainly glad for the 180 in attitude, but it happened so abruptly that it made for really weird reading.
The story itself is alright: Koa Kane is a 40-something detective on the underfunded Hawaii police force, living with his seven years younger (tho the numbers get fiddly partway through the book for no discernible reason) partner, astronomer Nalani. He’s worrying about budget cuts and a pinched nerve in his neck when a mutilated body is found in a lava tube on an army firing range. Investigations lead to such disparate factions as the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, as well as to archaeological black marketeers and the scientists up at Nalani’s workplace, the (fictional) Alice Observatory located on the slopes of Mauna Kea. It’s a wide-ranging look at current Hawaiian society and politics that serves as a fascinating introduction to the area. Did you know that Mauna Kea in winter features sub-arctic temperatures and snowfall? I sure didn’t! In fact, I actively doubted what Robert B McCaw was telling me for the longest time because he did not acknowledge that snow is not something you’d expect in fricking Hawaii of all places! I don’t expect to have my hand held in real world narratives but I do expect some awareness of out-group perspectives, tho I guess the constant disparaging allusions to an ob-gyn as a “baby doctor” (like, why is that disreputable? He helps bring children into the world. Is it because he does this by helping people with uteruses and heaven knows, those people aren’t to be taken seriously?) after also saying, “The army probably killed his relatives during the war. At least, I hope so” about a Japanese-Hawaiian person who dislikes the military, are indicative of blissful lack of same. And then there’s a weird bit in the afterword where I wondered whether somebody needed an explanation as to how sex can lead to pregnancy. I still also don’t understand why Kane was so hostile to the sovereignty groups, likely because their aims are never really explained in comparison to the amount of scorn heaped on them. I’m fairly certain sovereignty groups aren’t advocating for Hawaii to cut off all its electricity, as claimed in the book.
Trouble is, it’s always important — and especially when writing outside of your culture — to make sure you have a firm grasp of all the perspectives you might be encountering and to present them all ethically, lest your writing fall on the side of propaganda. You don’t have to be sympathetic to differing points of view, and you’re certainly under no obligation to keep your personal views quiet, but you still have to explain key cultural/political motivations in your own narrative if you have any hope of making the reader understand what’s going on. As far as I could gather from this novel, sovereignty activists want to go back to the old days by cutting off electricity but are hypocrites for… wearing cowboy boots? What cartoon villain nonsense is this?
I also feel that this would have been the kind of book which benefits from the author reading the dialog aloud to hear the naturalness of it or otherwise. I wasn’t a huge fan of the pacing either: while nothing happening then everything happening all at once is realistic in terms of real life police work, it doesn’t make for the most interesting reading, especially with an internally inconsistent main character. Maybe this series gets better as it goes, but in the meantime, if I’m looking for a Hawaiian police procedural, I’ll probably stick to Debra Bokur’s The Fire Thief: she might also be a haole but at least her writing feels reflective of actual Hawaiians (and of women: good grief, the one-dimensional nature of the female characters in Death Of A Messenger!) Honestly, I would love recommendations for contemporary Hawaiian literature written by people born a/o raised in Hawaii, especially in the mystery genre. Comments are open, as always!
Death Of A Messenger by Robert B McCaw was published January 5th, 2021 by Oceanview Publishing and is available from all good booksellers, including
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