Reading Honolulu Mysteries

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I discovered Glen Grant’s noirish Honolulu detective Arthur McDougal in Grant’s collection Obake: Ghost Stories in Hawaii. The two McDougal tales in Obake have supernatural villains, so one could say that McDougal in these stories is a (reluctant) occult detective. The other tales in Obake, which mostly focus on aspects of Japanese supernatural folklore that “migrated” to Hawaii, are also delightful.

The short stories in Honolulu Mysteries are different. Although the tales include various aspects of Hawaiian folklore and sometimes even feature a touch of Hawaiian supernatural phenomena, the bad guys are all definitely human — just as they ought to be, in McDougal’s view.

The late Glen Grant was a Hawaiian folklorist and historian, known for his many books on ghost stories and his ghost and history walking tours. He based the Arthur McDougal character on real-life Honolulu detective Arthur McDuffie, one-time Chief of Detectives in the Honolulu Police Department. McDuffie retired from the force in 1923, in the midst of allegations of bribery and corruption, and became a private investigator with the Honolulu International Detective Agency. McDougal’s background follows a similar arc. He’s a cynical, lonely private eye, walking the mean streets of Honolulu, seeing Oahu’s underbelly along with its beauty — and its ghosts.

The stories take place mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, when Hawaii was a U.S. Territory but not yet a state (Hawaiian statehood occurred in 1959). Grant fills the stories not only with folklore, but with tidbits about Hawaiian history, and brief appearances, or at least mentions, of real-life historical figures, like folklorist William Westervelt, surfer and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Honolulu Police detective Chang Apana, said to be the inspiration for Charlie Chan. Period photos of the Honolulu landmarks that form the background of the action, along with illustrations by Ross Yamanaka, help bring the stories to life. After each story, Grant gives a little background on the actual historical events that inspired the tale.

Grant apparently wrote these stories for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin between 1988 and 1989. Each story was a two-parter: the first part appeared on a Sunday and the solution to the mystery on Monday. In between, the paper invited readers to contribute their own solutions to the Sunday cliffhanger, with a prize for the best ending. This results in some odd pacing: when a story is read as a single piece, the resolution of the mystery often feels too abrupt. McDougal suddenly points his finger at the murderer, and I wasn’t even aware that he was done detecting. Then the explanation after the reveal all rushes out in the last few pages. Of course, Grant has scattered clues and hints throughout the earlier parts of the story — I’m not sure if there are always enough clues to solve the mystery oneself, since I wasn’t trying that hard — but the narratives don’t have that sense of dawning revelation that I think works better with noir.

On the other hand, I love the folklore. “Sharks Always Bite Twice” is only a so-so murder mystery, but it includes a lovely, creepy story about a half-man, half-shark, the son of the shark god Kamohoalii and a human woman. In other tales we get mentions of the Lady of Makapuu (a “lady in white”), the nightmarchers, the ghost dog Poki and other tidbits.

I also enjoyed the implicit lessons in Hawaiian history (not to mention a bit about Saipan), and I appreciate the diversity of the characters. Characters of color in stories set in this period are often pieces of exotica, and Grant does give us a Chinese gangster drug lord and a mystic Hawaiian, but we also get ordinary people who happen to not be white: Asian private eyes and college students, a Chinese coroner, a Japanese accountant, Hawaiian cops and bartenders. Interracial relationships seem fairly commonplace, even (rarely) situations where the woman is white and the man is not. Perhaps the real Honolulu of the time wasn’t as relatively integrated and harmonious as Grant portrays, but it was still nice to read about, and Grant acknowledges the racial and social inequalities that existed on the island, in a way that fits naturally into the narrative. McDougal is a working class, mainland-born white man with many of the prejudices and racial stereotypes a white man of the time might have, but also a working-class person’s wariness of Hawaii’s white elite, the plantation owners and wealthy white families. Class considerations often align McDougal’s sympathies with the Hawaiian, Asian, and white working and middle classes, rather than with the mostly white upper class.

For all this diversity, I was disappointed to see that Filipinos only appeared in one story, in stereotyped roles: as taxi dancers and anonymous bachelor farm workers. Unfortunately, this probably hints at the general economic and social status of Filipinos in Hawaiian society of the time. In a preface, Grant mentions that between 1897 and 1943, when capital punishment was abolished in Hawaii, 47 men were hanged at Oahu Prison, and over half of them were Filipino. I’m fairly sure that Filipinos didn’t make up half the population of Hawaii at that period, so draw your own conclusions (As of 2010, Filipinos and part-Filipinos form about a quarter of the Hawaiian population, making them Hawaii’s largest ethnic group). There are no African-American characters either, though Grant mentions a real life African-American police officer in the preface; people of African descent still form only a small fraction of the Hawaiian population (about 4%, including people of mixed African and other heritage).

I get the impression that Grant mostly aimed this collection at a local audience (he published it via a local publishing house) so he throws around references to local history in passing, and uses Hawaiian words and local slang without much explanation. There’s a historical prologue that I recommend reading for context, and a helpful glossary of Hawaiian words in the back. Generally you can figure out what you need to know from context.

Who should read this? If you like noir/hard-boiled detective stories, you might enjoy Honolulu Mysteries, though I feel it’s more of a pastiche of that genre than actual noir. If you have ever lived in Honolulu or in Hawaii in general, you might enjoy it for the memories. What most makes it worth reading, for me, is the history and the folklore. If you are interested in learning a bit about Hawaii’s past and absorbing some of its legends while enjoying fun detective fiction at the same time, do give this a try.

Recommended.


You can buy Honolulu Mysteries direct from the publisher, Mutual Publishing, here. I found my used copy on Amazon.

In my usual fashion, I went a-googling along some questions that reading the book raised for me. Some interesting links:

Detective Chang Apana – Hawaii’s First Action Hero : The real Chang Apana sounds a bit different from the Charlie Chan of Earl Derr Bigger’s novels. Here are some colorfully told anecdotes about the real man. The post also links to a short called The Legend Of Chang Apana. I don’t imagine it’s any closer to the real man than Charlie Chan is, but it’s a fun eight minutes.

A Brief History of Filipinos in Hawaii: Just like the title says.

African American Diversity Cultural Center Hawaii: Includes a history of Africans and African-Americans in Hawaii.

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