Monday, February 15, 2016
Review: MAHU VICE
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
Honolulu detective Kimo Kanapa’aka finds his personal and professional lives dangerously entwined when an arson-murder brings his ex-boyfriend, fireman Mike Riccardi, back into his life, and Kimo's family and friends are linked to crimes.
I discovered this book while browsing in the excellent Book Mongers, a lovely secondhand bookshop in Brixton, on a cold January day.
I was first intrigued by the cover (I've long been a fan of mystery TV shows Magnum PI and Hawaii Five-0, and the islands have always intrigued me as a location, but I haven't read a Hawaiian crime series before), then by the backcover blurb. A gay police detective in Hawaii who gets caught up in an arson-murder case with his ex-boyfriend fire investigator? Ticking several 'new-to-me' boxes, I decided to buy MAHU VICE. I'm so very glad I did.
Neil Plakcy has created a distinctive hero in Kimo Kanapa'aka, noble and flawed, searching for himself while also trying to solve the mystery of a deadly fire at a retail strip his father used to own. Who is behind the blaze? Is it an insurance scam, or a cover-up for something far darker? Kimo's investigation is further complicated by the appearance of fire investigator Mike Riccardi, Kimo's ex-boyfriend. Their relationship ended when Mike exacerbated his refusal to come out of the closet by cheating on Kimo while at a conference on the mainland, sending Kimo into a self-destructive spiral even though he pulled the plug.
MAHU VICE is a very enjoyable book from a mystery standpoint, with several twists and interesting reveals. Plakcy has crafted a good storyline as we hunt the true villain alongside Kimo, but it's in his characters, along with the way he textures the tale with numerous, interesting aspects of Hawaiian life, where Plakcy's storytelling shines brightest. Kimo is surrounded by a cast of memorable and well-drawn characters, from his ex-boyfriend Mike to current police partner Ray, his brothers, his highly entertaining friend Gunter, and several other acquaintances who crop up during the investigation. In each case the character feels authentic and real, not mere window-dressing. Plakcy has a knack for evoking the conflicts we can all have within us as people, the inconsistencies and contradictions. He's not afraid of putting emotions on the page, even if they may make his 'heroic' characters seem far less than heroic.
A quick note: MAHU VICE is a book deeply entwined with sex, from that within a loving relationship, to casual sex ranging from 'what's your name again?' fun to kinky or dangerous hook-ups, then even further into the darker realm where sex and money entwine (massage parlours, human trafficking, blackmail, covert recording). So maybe this book won't be for everyone. For me personally, I'm not used to reading descriptions of gay sex in crime novels, and I don't really read romance or erotica (though I like love story elements within tales), so that was interesting to get used to (at times there are plenty of glistening chests and admiring looks at various body parts). But after feeling a bit wary at first, I like the way things Plakcy weaves everything together. It didn't feel overdone. To me at least - and I'm a neophyte to gay crime, so don't have much to compare it to - it seems the love/sex elements are organic and necessary to the crime story and the hero's character, rather than gratuitously put there in an erotica kind of way.
Stepping back, MAHU VICE is a very enjoyable crime novel. It grew on me as I read it, from 'okay, this is decent' to 'I'll definitely read more of this series'. It is book four in Kimo's series, but I didn't feel that I couldn't follow what was going on. Plakcy did a great job weaving in the backstory, particularly when it came to the interpersonal relationships of various characters, or how things had changed between novels (this one doesn't pick up right from where the previous Kimo tale, MAHU FIRE, left off). I felt I knew enough, without being overburdened by exposition. It is a very well-crafted tale, with lots to like.
Craig Sisterson is a features writer from New Zealand who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 140 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson