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Hawaii comes thrillingly to life in ‘Hokuloa Road’

Elizabeth Hand’s new book is no ordinary mystery novel but a genre-bending tale that captures the richness of the Aloha State

"Hokuloa Road” by Elizabeth Hand. (Mulholland )

Who should lay claim to a Hawaiian paradise? The locals? The tourists paying a pretty penny? Or the animals that were squawking there first?

It’s a question with which the Aloha State has long contended, and it’s the beating heart of Elizabeth Hand’s new thriller, “Hokuloa Road.”

The book opens at a time that no one would describe as paradise: the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The weather may have thawed, but 28-year-old Grady Kendall’s life in rural Maine has frozen. A carpenter and former EMT, his job opportunities have cooled, his love life is glacial, and a ghost from his past is still causing shivers. Living with his mother while his brother is in a halfway house, Grady is looking for just about anything else.

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So, when his brother sends him a Craigslist ad for a live-in caretaker on a billionaire’s swanky Hawaiian island property, Grady applies — and lands it. Wes Minton, the hedge funder turned conservationist, Zooms Grady in the middle of the night, asks whether he has ever performed an appendectomy on himself, emphasizes that he must arrive alone, and barely does a background check: But rich people are eccentric, right?

The warning flags are flying, but Grady heads to a fictional Hawaiian island anyway. On the plane, he calms his nerves by chatting up UCLA graduate student Jessica Kiyoko, who is shocked that he’s headed out to notoriously treacherous Hokuloa Road and all the land that Minton made into a private wildlife refuge. “You hear a lot of stories about that place. Ghost stories — you know, like the spirit dog on the Road to Hana. Or choking ghosts, and the Nightmarchers.” Grady — with zero knowledge of Hawaiian folklore (Nightmarchers, huaka’i pō, are the ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors) — is sure she’s kidding. She’s definitely not.

It will take him a while to learn about mythology — and it’s a wonderful crash course for readers — but what he understands fast is that the Hawaii welcoming him is not the surf flick of his dreams. The caretaker who has been filling in, Dalita Nakoa, does not proffer an orchid or point out natural wonders when she picks him up. Instead, she tells Grady about human bones sticking out of coral reefs, and shows him unhoused people high on meth, nearly empty hotels and grocery stores, and an abandoned bunker, one of its walls painted with the names of the missing. “People disappear here,” she warns. And that’s in good times. These times are anything but. A year before, the island had nearly 300,000 tourists in July. The month Grady arrives, the number has dropped to a thousand. Is the island better if it’s left to the locals? From what Grady sees, not if the locals can’t afford to survive.

But life is still grand for Wes Minton. He inherited his vast volcanic land and was going to turn the nearly inaccessible peninsula into a luxury resort but seems content just roaring around in his Tesla admiring birds, like a secretive, moneyed Boy Scout. He shows Grady his massive fish tank filled with parasol urchins that will swiftly kill you, and his private aviary chockablock with rare species, but doesn’t give him much else to do before he disappears. Somehow, Grady keeps his New England chill — until he starts encountering the supernatural, the animals, the spirits that Jessie had mentioned.

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Jet-lagged and with alcohol in his veins, Grady sees an enormous dog with human eyes taking on shocking forms. Soon after he hears something, or someone, screaming on the shore below the cliffs. The question of what is real and what’s imagined shakes Grady to the core — and will shake the whole story — but it’s when he’s out of quarantine that the real shock comes. Jessica Kiyoko, the girl from the plane, has disappeared. Suddenly, he feels his sense of purpose in Hawaii: to find Jessie, to understand why people go missing.

The search is on, and the latter half of the book shifts gears to the fast-burn thriller fans will be waiting for.

To describe Elizabeth Hand as a mystery writer is to not have read another Elizabeth Hand book. Over decades, she has proved that she’s eclectic, genre-bending, and comfortable in fantasy and mystery, crime, myth, magic — and more. In “Hokuloa Road,” she explores the rich and diverse culture and environment of Hawaii — and seamlessly stitches this fascinating material into a girl-gone-missing story. It’s refreshingly and originally creepy.

Karin Tanabe is the author of five books, including, most recently, “A Woman of Intelligence.”

Hokuloa Road

By Elizabeth Hand

Mulholland Books. 401 pages. $28

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