The best under-appreciated books about Hawai'i

Why am I passionate about this?

In the early 1980s, I fell in love with the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, its people – including my wife’s Native Hawaiian relatives – and its history. My wife and I owned a home on the South Kohala Coast of the Big Island for twenty years, where I assembled a library of Hawaiian history and began reading all things Hawaiian, including detective fiction. Every year, Hawaiʻi inspires so many books, fiction and non-fiction, well-publicized or obscure, that it’s fun to mention some that Hawaiʻi lovers and residents may have missed.  


I wrote...

Bones Of Hilo

By Eric Redman,

Book cover of Bones Of Hilo

What is my book about?

A young, inexperienced detective from the wet, working-class side of Hawaii's Big Island, Kawika Wong faces an uphill battle to gain the respect of his more seasoned colleagues. And he has the chance of a lifetime when Ralph Fortunato, the Mainland developer of an unpopular resort on the island's tourist side, is found murdered on a luxury golf course, an ancient Hawaiian spear driven through his heart.

With the other detectives desperately trying to solve another string of grisly killings, Captain Terry Tanaka has no choice but to send Kawika to investigate. As Kawika joins forces with his father and girlfriend to help read the signs and make sense of the ritualistic murder scene, they uncover a cache of secrets reaching far back to the Island's ancient past.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow's Spectacular Last Case

Eric Redman Why did I love this book?

In 1931, Thalia Massie, the bored wife of a naval officer stationed in Honolulu, accused six nonwhite islanders of gang rape.

The trial loosed a storm of racist hatred and sexual hysteria nationwide (Hearst papers, I’m looking at you). But the evidence was scant – for one thing, she almost certainly had not been raped – and the trial ended in a hung jury.

Outraged that she hadn’t been believed, Thalia’s husband, mother, and friends then kidnapped and murdered one of the Native Hawaiian defendants as an “honor killing.” Caught in the act, the Massies got Clarence Darrow to defend them. 

He lost at trial but, scandalously, the all-white killers were released within hours. During the two years these events played out, racial divisions in Hawaiʻi became re-aligned – the concept of “locals” was born, embracing all nonwhite ethnic groups for the first time, and all in opposition to haoles (whites). 

That realignment echoes to this day. A deplorable episode in all respects, but one that at least spawned this fascinating true crime classic.

By David E. Stannard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Honor Killing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the fall of 1931, Thalia Massie, the bored, aristocratic wife of a young naval officer stationed in Honolulu, accused six nonwhite islanders of gang rape. The ensuing trial let loose a storm of racial and sexual hysteria, but the case against the suspects was scant and the trial ended in a hung jury. Outraged, Thalia’s socialite mother arranged the kidnapping and murder of one of the suspects. In the spectacularly publicized trial that followed, Clarence Darrow came to Hawai’i to defend Thalia’s mother, a sorry epitaph to a noble career.

It is one of the most sensational criminal cases…


Book cover of Hula: A Romance of Hawaii

Eric Redman Why did I love this book?

In this unusual novel, still in print after a century, Hula is a bewitching teenager raised on a Maui cattle ranch and proficient on horseback, among other talents. 

She attracts male attention, some acceptable by standards of the time (today she seems awfully young for her older suitors), and some markedly inappropriate even then. Drama ensues against a period-piece Maui backdrop: almost no cars on the island, few roads, and day-long steamer trips along the coast for sea travel from one town to another. 

The literary style and point of view, with the author hopping from one character’s head to another, often in a single paragraph, can at once surprise and delight modern readers. Armine von Tempski, who grew up on Maui, set other novels there, but Hula, her first, remains uniquely intriguing – especially for Maui lovers!  

By Armine Von Tempski,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hula as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

1928. Maui writer Armine von Tempski, who died almost a half-century ago, is one of Hawaii's enduring literary legends. She spent her childhood years on the family ranch in Haleakala with her Polish-American father and English mother. Her books reveal the daily life and customs on Hawaii with a colorful prose that captures the beauty of the spectacular tropics. The novel tells the colorful, sensual tale of Hula Calhoun, the daughter of a Hawaiian Planter, sidesteps the dissolute influence of her father through the guidance of her Uncle Edwin, who prefers a more natural existence to the society life of…


Book cover of Bones of Paradise: A Big Island Mystery

Eric Redman Why did I love this book?

In Hawaiʻi as elsewhere, bodies can end up in shallow graves – or so Hawaiʻi detective fiction would have it. 

When skeletal remains turn up, Mimi Charles, forensic anthropologist, sets out to recover them and unlock their secrets for the (naturally) less-expert Big Island police. The author is a forensic anthropologist herself, with plenty of real-world cases in Hawaiʻi and on the mainland to her credit, and she knows that in post mortem-focused mysteries, every forensic detail counts. 

She constructs an ingenious plot, in which a rare and boisterous dog plays a key part. Unlike more cautious authors who won’t dare to let their characters speak Hawaiian pidgin, Lasswell Hoff confidently sprinkles in just the right (and intelligible) amount. 

There’s a final and unique plot twist that makes the reader stop and marvel: How did the author manage to bring us here?  

By Jane Lasswell Hoff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bones of Paradise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

BONES OF PARADISE - A Big Island Mystery -Even in paradise, people do die. And it’s the job of Mimi Charles, Forensic Anthropologist, to analyze the bodies that aren’t found right away – skeletons, mostly. Mimi and her colleagues at the Medical Examiner’s office are a tightly-knit team that relishes solving the mysteries presented by each case. But outside of the office, their lives in the sweet little town of Hilo, Hawaii, flow in a gentle island rhythm. None of them is prepared for the disappearance of one of their own, right from the building where they work (or the…


Book cover of Kaiulani: Crown Princess of Hawaii

Eric Redman Why did I love this book?

Princess Victoria Kaʻiulani is among those brave real-life heroines who remain inspiring despite terrible tragedies, in Kaʻiulani’s case the theft of the Hawaiian kingdom in a coup by white planters in 1893 when she was only seventeen, and her shockingly premature death only six years later, at twenty-three, after being caught far from shelter in a chilling Hawaiʻi rain storm. 

In those six years, she became a figure on the world stage, welcomed by the royal houses of Europe as the forceful, articulate, and beautiful advocate (educated in England) pleading for the Hawaiian Kingdom’s formal diplomatic recognition and its return by the United States. 

U.S. annexation, an admitted wrong, might have been righted by her efforts had not Alfred Thayer Mahan’s relentless crusade persuaded Congress and the President that the U.S. needed Pearl Harbor to project U.S. naval power across the Pacific. 

Ironically, Kaʻiulani’s planned marriage to a Japanese prince, which the deposed Queen Liliʻuokalani arranged in order to wrest Hawaiʻi from U.S. hands, might have changed world history, but Kaʻiulani politely declined it. 

The Webb family were close advisors to Hawaiian royalty; it’s unlikely any other writers could have provided such a complete and vivid biography of the young woman whom history – and a prolonged cold downpour in Hawaiʻi – cheated of so much. 

By Nancy Webb, Jean Francis Webb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kaiulani as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Vintage paperback


Book cover of The Musubi Murder

Eric Redman Why did I love this book?

Murders in academia are a special genre within the universe of detective fiction, but Frankie Bow – the pen name of a highly amused and amusing university professor – has created her own delightful franchise, extended into a series of eleven short, light-hearted, and gently satirical volumes featuring Professor Molly Barda as a sardonic sleuth, one who voices her observations almost as aphorisms. 

Although The Musubi Murder is number two in the series, set at the faintly ludicrous Mahina State University ("Where Your Future Begins Tomorrow"), it’s a good place for the reader to start following Professor Molly. Musubi itself may not be addictive for everyone (it’s cooked Spam secured to sushi rice by a strip of seaweed), but Frankie Bow’s mystery series surely is.

By Frankie Bow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Musubi Murder as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"If you like your cozy mysteries with humor and a satisfying dose of sarcasm, Frankie Bow is your go-to author."
― Laura's Interests Book Blog

After a brutal year on the academic job market, Professor Molly Barda finally lands a teaching job. In Mahina, Hawaii!

But Mahina isn't exactly paradise.

Chronically-underfunded Mahina State University ("Where Your Future Begins Tomorrow") doesn't boast rolling green lawns or wood paneled offices. Molly sits on a yoga ball because there's no budget for office furniture. Her dean, unwilling to lose paying customers, won't let her report cheating students.

After yet another round of budget…


You might also like...

Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

Book cover of Kanazawa

David Joiner Author Of Kanazawa

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

My book recommendations reflect an abiding passion for Japanese literature, which has unquestionably influenced my own writing. My latest literary interest involves Japanese poetry—I’ve recently started a project that combines haiku and prose narration to describe my experiences as a part-time resident in a 1300-year-old Japanese hot spring town that Bashō helped make famous in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as a writer, my main focus remains novels. In late 2023 the second in a planned series of novels set in Ishikawa prefecture will be published. I currently live in Kanazawa, but have also been lucky to call Sapporo, Akita, Tokyo, and Fukui home at different times.

David's book list on Japanese settings not named Tokyo or Kyoto

What is my book about?

Emmitt’s plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of purchasing their dream home. Disappointed, he’s surprised to discover her subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo.

In his search for a meaningful life in Japan, and after quitting his job, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa’s most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English. He becomes drawn into the mysterious death of a friend of Mirai’s parents, leading him and his father-in-law to climb the mountain where the man died. There, he learns the somber truth and discovers what the future holds for him and his wife.

Packed with subtle literary allusion and closely observed nuance, Kanazawa reflects the mood of Japanese fiction in a fresh, modern incarnation.

Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

What is this book about?

In Kanazawa, the first literary novel in English to be set in this storied Japanese city, Emmitt's future plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of negotiations to purchase their dream home. Disappointed, he's surprised to discover Mirai's subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo, a city he dislikes.

Harmony is further disrupted when Emmitt's search for a more meaningful life in Japan leads him to quit an unsatisfying job at a local university. In the fallout, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa's most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English.

While continually resisting Mirai's…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in murder, murder mystery, and presidential biography?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about murder, murder mystery, and presidential biography.

Murder Explore 932 books about murder
Murder Mystery Explore 489 books about murder mystery
Presidential Biography Explore 19 books about presidential biography