Accidental sleuth

ICED IN PARADISE: A Leilani Santiago Hawai’i Mystery

By Naomi Hirahara (Altadena, Calif.: Prospect Park Books, 2019, 216 pp., $16, paperback)

Stepping into “Iced in Paradise,” author Naomi Hirahara immediately establishes a local vantage point, from behind the counter of Santiago Shave Ice. When a mainlander asks about Waimea Wonder, her grandmother’s signature combination, lead character Leilani Santiago responds, “Azuki. Japanese red beans. Comes in Waimea Wonder.” Dang, lady can’t you read our chalkboard? In perfect script in multicolored chalk, complete with little flowers and hearts instead of dots for the i’s, my youngest sister, Dani, has clearly written: “Waimea Wonder: haupia and pineapple with snowcap (condensed milk) and azuki beans.”

We quickly learn of the family dynamics and antics. After Leilani refills the order without the azuki to appease the customer who insisted she asked for “no beans,” she says to her grandmother, “Baachan, you wen hear her right.”

Through the comings and goings in Waimea Junction, from her father’s surf shop, the family’s shave ice shop, and her Uncle D’s corner bar, we meet the lively mixed race family and all of those who are part of the ‘ohana (Hawaiian word for family).

After fixing herself a tall cup of Seattle coffee and reading a note from her Mom that they will head out to the North Shore surf competition, Leilani makes her way to the shop. Without turning the light on, she steps into something squishy and discovers the dead body of the surfer, his father’s latest surfing protégé. When her father becomes the prime suspect, she searches for clues to prove his innocence.

Having recently moved back after five years away, Leilani falls in sync with the family rhythm, yet is still emotionally tethered to her boyfriend and the rainy gray skies of Seattle. With her experience living away, Leilani must figure out where she fits in and provides an insider-outsider perspective as the sleuth in Hirahara’s newest mystery series.

The well-developed lively characters with endearing qualities, and their ease with each other expressed through the informal cadence of pidgin draws the reader in. More than a visitor to the island, we become part of the community fabric through Hirahara’s deftly woven writing. And with that belonging, Hirahara guides us to understand ‘ohana and to value the ‘aina (Hawaiian for land).

Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Mas Arai mystery series, which have earned such honors as Publishers Weekly’s Best Book of the Year and Chicago Tribune’s Ten Best Mysteries and Thrillers. She is also the author of the Ellie Rush mysteries (Penguin Random House), the co-author of “Life After Manzanar” (Heyday), and a contributor to several anthologies, including Los Angeles Noir and Santa Cruz Noir.

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