Book Review: A Legacy of Bones by Doug Burgess

Doug Burgess's A Legacy of Bones is a provocative murder mystery exploring the racial and cultural divide between landed elite and villagers on a remote Hawaiian island. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

I can’t believe this effortlessly classic murder mystery isn’t part of a series, and sincerely hope it soon will be!

Winnie Te Papa is cultural director for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, but is well known throughout the islands for her wisdom and, more importantly, kindness. Though she’s getting on in years, her mind is a steel trap, so it isn’t a surprise when she’s asked to sit on an arbitration panel regarding the controversial sale of the privately-owned Kaumaha Island. David Tanaka, the president and CEO of the company looking to develop Kaumaha into a resort, has personally invited her to help settle the dispute.

Ordinarily, Mrs Te Papa has little time for corporations wanting her as a figurehead, but her assistant Marybeth points out that the issue has all the elements she usually enjoys getting involved in. Kaumaha Island has sacred ruins, predatory developer interest and a squabble between the native and haole inhabitants. Mrs Te Papa has to concede the point, so the intrepid duo journey out to the remote locale to see what’s what.

The situation at Kaumaha, as Mrs Te Papa and Marybeth soon discover, is more complicated than either had anticipated. The island was considered cursed by locals and avoided altogether until a Baptist missionary, Amyas Lathrop, brought his flock of native converts to build a settlement there in the 1800s. His descendants still live in a large house on the hill, as does a hardy village of his congregation’s, whose interests are represented by Lani Kapiaho, granddaughter of the Lathrop’s matriarch, Eleanor. Given the dispute between the Lathrops and the villagers regarding the sale of the island, an arbitration panel has been called in, consisting of Mrs Te Papa, anthropologist Robert Ackerman, and Judge Rosalind Chan. This formidable trio quickly manages to sort things out to the best of their legal, cultural, and historical knowledge, but a murder soon mars the proceedings.

When someone is arrested for the death, Mrs Te Papa senses that something isn’t right, and is moved to interfere. But the more she investigates, the more she worries that the truth will prove damaging to someone whose reputation she wishes to protect. She confers with an old mentor:

“But what if the truth hurts her memory even more?”


Duke nodded. “She deserves that truth, whatever it might be. You are not her judge. Nor do you judge those who harmed her. When you uncover an ancient site, do you shrink from interpreting its meaning even if it seems barbaric to us now? Of course not. What use would a scholar be who made up stories about the past just because they sounded pretty? You are simply the vessel. You uncover the truth and let others judge as they will.”

Girded with this advice, Mrs Te Papa throws herself into uncovering the secrets of Kaumaha Island, as well as the secrets of those present at the fateful arbitration, in hopes of bringing a murderer to justice. While some of her suspects fit the expected stereotypes, others prove entirely more complex than expected. Take, for example, the property developer who originally invited Mrs Te Papa to participate. Instead of using the strong arm tactics too often defaulted to by those of his ilk, he pushed for arbitration, specifically requesting Mrs Te Papa because of her impact on him when he was graduating high school:

“I was valedictorian that year. You gave me an award and told me how proud you were of me. I’d never heard those words before. And that’s why I whispered up at you, ‘Does diversity mean other things besides skin? Like who we love?’ And you leaned down–I was a lot shorter then–and said, ‘Yes, little ‘anela, diversity means you may love whomever you want, and tolerance means everyone will accept that love.’ I never forgot it. So when I needed advice on whether I was being a true Hawaiian, you were the first person I thought of.”

Mrs Te Papa must work her way through a tangle of secrets from the past and present as she tries to solve both the modern murder mystery and an alarming new conundrum with very old roots. With her keen eye and indefatigable commitment to justice—as well as her strong connection to the lore and beliefs of Hawaii—she makes for one of the most impressive and interesting sleuths I’ve had the pleasure of recently encountering. 

But A Legacy of Bones doesn’t just stand on the charm of a single character. It’s a very solidly constructed novel that is reminiscent of the best classic mysteries—a la Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers—and is chock-full of Easter Eggs alluding to its predecessors. Perhaps it was this classic construction that had me marveling at how this book is not already part of a series, so easily does it slip into the established canon. With assured and lived-in prose, this novel is a delight for anyone who enjoys a mystery that refuses to trade on the expected, while also showcasing the vibrancy of life in modern Hawaii.

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