Mystery writer and playwright Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl once said in an interview with the Weekly, that she admired the work of Martha Grimes, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and the ever-loveable mystery hero, Nancy Drew. While reading Kneubuhl’s newest book, Murder Leaves its Mark, these impressionistic authors seem to be wonderfully present. Although her book isn’t what I might consider a hard-boiled detective story, Kneubuhl’s novel is tightly woven around interesting characters, and her research of 1930s Hawaii is refreshingly on point.
The author doesn’t dig into themes of forensic science like many modern crime novels, but rather mirrors the work of mystery writer Sue Grafton, who created a series of books that featured private investigator Kinsey Millhone in the fictional city of Santa Teresa.
In Kneubuhl’s novel, however, we’re transported back to the spring of 1935, Honolulu, where twin sisters Mina and Nyla lead privileged but socially conscious lives. Mina, a reporter for The Honolulu Bulletin has grown bitter and ashamed about working for a paper that is “slanted and prejudiced.” Accompanied by her sister, Mina walks through the doors of the Bulletin and cleans out her desk, a scene most of us can relate to. An hour later they down a bottle of champagne at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and it is here that we find out these women survive and thrive due to a million dollar trust fund, and that is something most of us cannot relate to.
Kneubuhl once called her work “cozy fun,” and although that kind of writing doesn’t appeal to everyone, it does speak to the tone of the book. We’re sometimes overwhelmed with “cute” mentions of the “toy-like black dog,” Ollie, but at other times we’re surprised by the author’s artistic interpretations. Mid-way through the novel, we find ourselves in an old grove of ten thousand palms planted by Kakuhihewa (one of Oahu’s most revered and celebrated ancient chiefs) and the author writes, “Mina always thought of the trees as a group of lonely old Hawaiians, out of place and stranded at a garden party on the lawn of the pink hotel…She gazed up at the fronds swaying back and forth and took it as a sign of agreement.” Moments like this one remind the reader that Kneubuhl isn’t just a writer, but a sensory artist, and even if mystery isn’t one’s genre of choice, the author’s ability to paint an original scene is worthy of our attention.
Love stories and death threats intermingle in this Island-based mystery, and eventually Mina finds herself on the trail of a murderer. In a softly approached investigation of homicide, I can’t help but also investigate Knuebuhl’s political voice; one that quietly gazes upon 1930s society in Hawaii, as well as its mean streets.
If you’ve read Kneubuhl’s preceeding novel, Murder Casts a Shadow, then you’ll return to familiar characters and scenery, and if you haven’t read it, you aren’t missing enough to be bothered. Kneubuhl’s work is entertaining and leaves you with memorable moments like this one: “The softening daylight wrapped the grass, the trees, and the sea in a dreamlike glow, the old hotel creaked and yawned and fell into its own summer slumber.”
Which is another way of saying that a cozy, sensory experience is worth a lot.