Book Review: The Fire Thief by Debra Bokur

The Fire Thief by Debra Bokur is the first book in the new Dark Paradise Mystery series featuring Detective Kali Māhoe, where the Maui scenery may be beautiful, but dangerous secrets are buried beneath paradise.

Oh, to be on gorgeous Maui in times like these—especially if you live in an area where the weather is as vexingly changeable as mine! The Fire Thief is wonderfully atmospheric, evoking a sense of lush tropical island weather. However, this debut thriller in the Dark Paradise Mystery series does not just display the pretty parts of Hawaii but digs deeper to present a balanced look at the islands in the present day, with the push and pull of tradition and modernity enmeshing locals and tourists alike.

Detective Kali Māhoe is the epitome of this melange. After earning her degree in cultural anthropology, she decided to join the police academy, working with her uncle, police Captain Walter Alaka’i, to bring criminals to justice. Kali also happens to be the granddaughter of one of Hawaii’s most respected spiritual leaders and is well on the way to becoming a kahu herself. Logical but openminded, she’s the perfect lens through which to view the history that’s shaped her native land and, in particular, its belief systems.

The [natives’] colorful and often violent creation myths had been a constant source of frustration to the missionaries who set up local schools in the islands in the quest to convert the native population to their beliefs. Most of the Hawaiian children had grown up with the stories as part of their lives: the tales explained the order of the universe in a way that made sense to them. As far as Kali was concerned, they were no more fantastic than tales of turning water into wine or parting seas. She’d never understood the issues that arose between people when it came to religion, or why adherents of every denomination had to insist that only they could truly explain the riddles of the universe. Personally, she preferred a little mystery.

This mindset and background also mean that whenever a case comes in with traditional or ritual elements, Kali is often the one assigned to investigate. When the body of a local teenage surfer washes up on Maui’s southeastern shore, signs first point to a tragic but not uncommon accident. But then, the police discover evidence that poor Kekipi Smith was killed with the aid of a traditional weapon, putting the case squarely under Kali’s remit.

Even as she’s investigating Kekipi’s murder, however, her precinct catches another case with distressingly supernatural overtones. Solar panels have been going missing from all over the island, and the only eyewitnesses to the thefts report seeing a faceless figure like the noppera-bō of Japanese myth. Worse, another noppera-bō sighting involves the grisly dismemberment of a cat—and that’s even before another body washes ashore. Soon, Kali is risking life and limb to catch a ghost and bring a deranged killer to justice.

Fortunately, she has a terrific supporting cast to help her in her pursuit. Well, mostly terrific: her almost-stepdaughter, Makena Shirai, is a piece of work, but even she has an important role to play in the proceedings. For more consistent support, Kali has her enormous dog, Hilo, who proves to be a capable backup on more than one occasion, as here where a routine inquiry sends an interviewee running out the back door of his own office:

She snapped her fingers.

 

“Hilo!”

 

The dog raised his head, then scrambled toward the door. Kali pulled it open a little wider.

 

“Fetch, boy,” she said.

 

Dutifully, Hilo bounded forward, his tail pointing in a straight line behind him.

 

She settled back into the chair, leaving the door propped open. Half a minute later, she heard a bark, followed by a terrified human yelp, and then silence. She pushed back the chair and walked out the door, then along the edge of a path leading back across the lot behind the shop, following the sound. She could make out a small storage shed just on the other side of the trees. Rounding a curve, she came upon Randy, sprawled facedown in the underbrush on one side of the path, with Hilo half sitting, half lying across his back and head.

 

“Good boy, Hilo,” she said, scratching the big dog behind his ears. “Good boy.”

Debra Bokur has written an immersive, thoroughly researched tale of mystery and mythology that will enlighten as well as entertain. It’s honestly been a while since I’ve wanted to be able to physically join the cast of a novel I’m reading, but The Fire Thief had me longing to solve mysteries with Kali and crew in the flesh. Kali herself is a terrific addition to the world of police procedurals, an original and unconventional heroine who is easy to root for. I can’t wait to read more about her!

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