Hokolua Road, by Elizabeth Handbook Review

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Who should lay claim to a Hawaiian paradise? The local? The tourists pay a pretty penny? Or the animals that screeched there first?

It’s an issue the Aloha State has grappled with for a long time, and it’s the beating heart of Elizabeth Hand’s new thriller, Hokuloa Road.

The book begins at a time no one would call paradise: the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The weather may have thawed, but the life of 28-year-old Grady Kendall in rural Maine has frozen. As a carpenter and former paramedic, his job opportunities have deteriorated, his love life is frigid, and a ghost from his past still sends shivers down his spine. Grady lives with his mother while his brother lives in a transitional home and looks after just about everything else.

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So when his brother sends him a Craigslist ad for a janitor at a billionaire’s swanky Hawaiian island estate, Grady applies – and lands. Wes Minton, the hedge fund-turned-conservationist, Zooms Grady in the Middle of the Night, asks if he’s ever performed an appendectomy on himself, stresses that he has to arrive alone, and barely does a background check: But rich people are eccentric , Right ?

The warning flags are flying, but Grady sets off to a fictional Hawaiian island anyway. On the plane, he calms his nerves by chatting with UCLA student Jessica Kiyoko, who is shocked that he is heading to the notoriously treacherous Hokuloa Road and all the land that Minton has turned into a private wildlife sanctuary. “You hear a lot of stories about this place. Ghost Stories – You know, like the ghost dog on the Road to Hana. Or suffocating spirits and the Nightmarchers.” Grady – ignorant of Hawaiian folklore (Nightmarchers, huaka’i po, are the spirits of ancient Hawaiian warriors) – is sure she is joking. She definitely isn’t.

It’ll take him a while to learn about mythology – and it’s a wonderful crash course for readers – but he quickly understands that the Hawaii that welcomes him isn’t the surf movie of his dreams. Stand-in caretaker Dalita Nakoa doesn’t offer 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 deserted people high on meth, nearly empty hotels and grocery stores, and an abandoned bunker whose walls are painted with the names of the missing. “People are disappearing here,” she warns. And that in good times. These times are anything but. A year earlier, the island had nearly 300,000 tourists in July. In the month Grady arrives, that number has dropped to a thousand. Is the island better left to the locals? From what Grady sees, not if the locals can’t afford to survive.

But life is still great for Wes Minton. He inherited his vast volcanic land and wanted to turn the nearly inaccessible peninsula into a luxury resort, but seems content to just roar around in his Tesla and admire birds like a mysterious, wealthy boy scout. He shows Grady his huge aquarium full of parasol hedgehogs that will kill you quickly and his private aviary full of rare species, but doesn’t give him much else to do before he disappears. Somehow Grady keeps his New England vibe going – until he starts bumping into the supernatural, the animals, the spirits Jessie mentioned.

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With jet lag and alcohol running through his veins, Grady sees a giant dog with human eyes take on shocking forms. Soon after, he hears something or someone yelling on the shore below the cliffs. The question of what is real and what is imaginary shakes Grady to the core – and will shake the whole story – but it’s when he comes out of quarantine that the real shock comes. Jessica Kiyoko, the girl from the plane, has disappeared. Suddenly he feels his purpose in Hawaii: to find Jessie, to understand why people are missing.

The search continues, and in the second half of the book, gears shift to the fast-paced thriller fans will be waiting for.

Calling Elizabeth Hand a mystery writer means not having read another book by Elizabeth Hand. She has proven over decades that she is versatile, crosses genres and is at home 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 weaves this fascinating material into a story about a missing girl. It’s refreshing and originally creepy.

Karin Tanabe is the author of five books, most recently “An intelligent woman.”

Mulholland books. 401 pages. $28

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