RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's begin another chapter in our series "Crime in the City" about crime writers and the places where their mysteries are set. I recently spent a day exploring the dark side of a sunny city: Honolulu, on the lush green island of Oahu. It's here that author Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl takes readers back to the Hawaii of the 1930s.
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MONTAGNE: Waikiki Beach was already a tourist paradise, with Hawaiian surfers riding the waves and mainlanders sunning on the sand, much like this beach where Victoria Kneubuhl introduces us to a more sinister Hawaii.
VICTORIA KNEUBUHL: I think that juxtaposition between things that are horrible and terrible happening in a beautiful setting, adds a lot of tension and depth to things.
MONTAGNE: Her first novel, "Murder Casts a Shadow," could have been written in the '30s. It's an old fashioned whodunit where all the characters are linked as they come together to put on a play for Honolulu's Community Theater. Only the playwright is not from here. He's Ned Manusia, writer and sometime spy, son of a British aristocrat and a Samoan princess - raised in England.
In short, the type of outsider with an exotic past and a taste for adventure that has always been drawn to the island. On his first day, Ned wakes up in an elegant guesthouse above a lake of clouds, as Kneubuhl describes it in her book.
KNEUBUHL: (Reading) His imagination always seemed more alive in Hawaii. He could relax. He wasn't the oddity that he was in London. Or the oddity he felt he'd become in his birthplace. Honolulu was a mixture of all kinds of odd people and things, floating in the ocean between so many worlds.
MONTAGNE: The darkly handsome Ned will soon meet and team up with Mina Beckwith, girl reporter for the Honolulu Bulletin. With her flowing dark hair, green eyes and golden brown skin, Mina is a tropical Nancy Drew always on the lookout for a mystery in search of a sleuth.
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KNEUBUHL: She's part Hawaiian. She was born here in Honolulu and she lives on this beach.
MONTAGNE: Like her character, Mina, Victoria Kneubuhl is descended partly from native Hawaiians. And this particular stretch of beach actually played a part in what, for Hawaiians, is a tragic moment in their history.
In the late 19th century a group of powerful white landowners and businessman, with the help of U.S. troops, overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii. And it was here, shortly after, that a boatful of Hawaiians tried to take it back.
KNEUBUHL: This was the beach where they landed arms that they had shipped in from San Francisco. You know, there's a part in my book where Ned says to Mina, Oh, you're living in rebel territory? And she goes, yes, I am on the beach at Ka'ala' Waii.
MONTAGNE: This is one of many moments where Victoria Kneubuhl threads Hawaii's sometimes painful past into the story. It's a history largely unknown to the tourists enjoying the island's charms, giving depth to what would otherwise be just a fun beach read.
Still, this is a murder mystery. So from rebel beach, we move on to a place back in the '30s where a lot of characters were up to no good: Honolulu's public market in the heart Chinatown.
KNEUBUHL: When people want something really fresh, this is where they come.
MONTAGNE: These fish are so fresh they're flopping.
KNEUBUHL: Our Chinatown in the city is one of the oldest in the nation. I set a lot of scenes and action in Chinatown, because it used to have a reputation of being super seedy. And there's still a lot of gambling going on here today and a lot of shady deals are done in Chinatown.
MONTAGNE: One such deal might have gotten a character killed in "Murder Casts a Shadow." It involves the illegal trade in Asian antiquities passing through the secretive underworld of 1930s Chinatown. The actual murder was in the museum, Honolulu's Bishop Museum.
Founded in the 1880s, it's cool, dark Victorian interior overflows with the precious artifacts of Hawaii's long-gone kings and queens. It looks exactly as described in the book.
KNEUBUHL: (Reading) Ancient Hawaiian gods hewn from stone or wood stood silent and staring. Their large carved features seemed to be reaching out as if they were trying to say something. Ned felt them touching him in a way that was both all too familiar and always unfathomable. He looked into the standing glass cases that lined the walls. A carved bowl decorated with inserts of teeth, a large gourd believed to have held the winds. What a marvelous world these things came from, Ned thought.
MONTAGNE: In a sense, these artifacts take their revenge. When Mina shows up at the museum to do a story about several portraits of Hawaii's last royal rulers, the man she comes to interview won't be talking. Because he is dead.
KNEUBUHL: Abel Halpern is the first victim in "Murder Casts a Shadow." And he is the curator of the Bishop Museum. And his body is discovered in the basement of the Bishop Museum. He's whacked on the head with an artifact from the collection on his office shelf.
MONTAGNE: The first murder of a widely loathed and possibly crooked curator, leads Mina and Ned to a deeper, older mystery hidden in the royal portraits. What or who killed Hawaii's last king? The historical record says Kalākaua fell ill and died on a royal trip to San Francisco. Victoria Kneubuhl has heard a different version, passed down through generations of Hawaiians, that the king was murdered.
KNEUBUHL: When I was young, my grandmother and old friend of hers used to get together and play Canasta every week. And sometimes they would stop and they would tell stories about the monarchy. And that's where I first heard that rumor that the king might have been poisoned. It was really interesting to listen to this one woman, who we called Nana. Because whenever she talked about the overthrow of the monarchy, her voice got really quiet. It was charged with emotion. So that left a really big impression on me.
MONTAGNE: A sense that it's the lost world of old Hawaii that casts a shadow.
KNEUBUHL: You know, that history for so long was kept away from people, at least in my generation. And I realized that by writing these mysteries, you can kind of go home again and you can take other people with you. I think that's the magic of writing. You know, you can actually take somebody to a different place.
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MONTAGNE: And Victoria Kneubuhl's Hawaii is a place where two islands sleuths uncover betrayal and murder, among the fragrant breezes and turquoise sea.
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GABBY PAHINUI: (Singing) Ku'u lei aloha na'u, lei makamae...
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.