Books

Sisters in Crime
Image: Shantel Grace

Criminal inspiration

A sisterhood of the butler did it

Sisters in Crime / “I don’t want to die a natural death,” says retired Honolulu police officer Gary Dias. “I want to be murdered, on my 105th birthday, while in bed with a super model, by her jealous boyfriend.”

It’s hard to tell whether Dias is being serious, but the author of three crime novels is giving a local club of readers and writers of mysteries a little criminal inspiration as they consider storylines for their next works of fiction.

The members of Sisters in Crime, which consists of both men and women, are illustrators, authors and avid mystery readers interested in crimes and their detection, criminals and their motives. The local chapter of the national organization is headed by Dawn Casey, who believes monthly speakers are key to gaining new insight on death investigation.

“We try to find speakers, like Gary, who can give us some factual guidance about murder investigation and homicide, and what we take from a couple of hours of stories is sometimes significant.”

Sisters in Crime meets once a month at the Makiki Library, and though the organization was originally formed to combat discrimination against women mystery writers, writers in any genre and of any gender are welcome.

On the night of our visit, more than a dozen members and visitors wait with pen in hand to question the former police detective.

Dias stands in front of a collection of James Patterson and Sherlock Holmes novels in the library’s mystery section. With his cane in one hand and his flare for public speaking in the other, Dias awakens the curious writers through anecdotal stories that help discern between situations involving natural death, accidental death, suicide and homicide. He discusses why it’s important to understand motive and intent and why it’s imperative to understand the laws of the state one is writing about.

“Lets say you wake up in the middle of the night because you hear someone trying to break in. You crawl to the kitchen and grab a cast iron skillet. If you use that, you can always play it off as self-defense, right? Wrong. We don’t live in Texas people. We live in one of the other 49 states, and by using that skillet you went beyond the penal code and could be charged with an assault felony. If he’s just burglarizing you, you cannot hurt him. That’s just the way it is in Hawaii.”

The groups seems disturbed to find out they can’t protect themselves in their own homes, and Dias takes the opportunity to elaborate.

“It’s important to understand the logistics of self-defense. The penal code says you have to run away from an intruder. If you can’t run, you can only use the same amount of force the intruder uses.”

The conversation moves to a subject that everyone seems curious to learn more about–suicide and what constitutes wrongful death. Dias says the role of an investigator is to find out whether the death was forced, and sometimes, discerning its circumstances is tricky.

“We are a state that doesn’t allow assisted suicide. The wife of a local man was dying a few years ago. She asked her husband to help her end her life. He gave her some pills and helped her by putting a plastic bag around her face, ending her life through asphyxiation. Then he called us. Unfortunately, in Hawaii, we don’t have the right to say we did it out of love.”

Other suicide cases involve the well-known murder-suicide stories like the recent one of a 33-year-old woman living in Kaneohe. She was stabbed to death by her boyfriend just before he jumped to his death. But some of Dias’ stories are poignant, tender and filled with potential narrative.

“We had one lady who put all of her belongings out on her bed. She wrote little notes like, ‘This is for so-and-so,’ and then she went up to her balcony and jumped. I always say suicide is a crime, punishable by death.”

The swarming effect of Dias’s stories on a room full of murder-mystery thinkers creates a bustling of pens scratching notepads. He continues to offer up fresh, imaginative possibilities for great literary conflict, including the story of a man whose penis was literally bitten off by his lover.

“We had a case where two elderly men who were life partners got into a huge argument. Their neighbors called us so we went to investigate. When we showed up, we noticed a man on the floor lying down, but he raised his arm to say he was fine. A few days later we went back, but he had never moved, and eventually we saw the bite marks. Someone bit the tip right off.”

Unfortunately that case is still listed as natural death, and Dias says he has a reputation for being a little impetuous when it comes to a judge’s or an examiner’s final decision after a homicide.

“I go ballistic sometimes, crazy. I can’t help it, I’m Portuguese! If the examiner says it’s natural death, yet I find a suspect, there’s absolutely nothing I can do.”

Dias says Honolulu is full of unsolved cases, many of which have given him and other crime writers a wealth of material to pull from. He says that most murders happen in the heat of passion and the investigation process is paralleled in drama. Dias says he had one of the toughest, dirtiest and most satisfying jobs in town, “But fiction is way more interesting than real life.”

Sisters in Crime meets at the Makiki Library, 1527 Keeaumoku St., Wed., 11/10, 6:30pm, [www.sistersincrimehawaii.org], 942-1794