Drug trafficking, rape and lethal fights over money and power are themes that seem more at home in the grimy underbelly of Chicago than among the tropical flowers of Hawaii. But Portland author Lono Waiwaiole chose the Big Island as the setting for his hardboiled new noir novel, Dark Paradise (Dennis McMillan Publications, 310 pages, $35), spilling blood on the pristine haven tourists tend to envision. The book zeroes in on a handful of ethnic sects—Japanese, Mexican, native islander—fighting for control of the island’s crystal meth trade. When the FBI catches wind of the drug trafficking, it joins forces with local cop Geronimo Souza, who knows all the players a little too well. Secrets are hard to keep when everyone lives in such close proximity, but when those secrets are vital to someone’s physical safety or sanity, there are ways to keep them out of sight. And if that means killing a few enemies in the process, so be it.
Waiwaiole—a high-school teacher in Forest Grove and Oregon Book Award finalist in 2003 for Wiley’s Lament, his debut novel about a half-Hawaiian poker player—writes in a style that defies easy rationalization. That rapist deserved to die in a painful way that highlighted his sin, right? Is an adulterous cop with a gambling problem really still the good guy? Waiwaiole admits his style and subject matter don’t appeal to everyone: “I write some of the darkest noir out there, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.” It’s more apt to compare the novel to a mug of black coffee—bitter but addictive, with a persistent aftertaste.
His inspiration for Dark Paradise was an event that happened shortly after he and his wife moved to the Big Island in 2003 (they returned to PDX in ’05). “The biggest drug bust in the history of the island occurred while we were there,” he says, referring to an October 2003 FBI sting in which five drug-trafficking rings extending from the Big Island into Nevada, Arizona and California were disbanded. “I took the event and built a fictional world around that.”
Though the book is not free from minor infractions—like the occasional need for the reader to read dialogue twice to determine who’s speaking—they do not detract from its overall worth. Dark Paradise is truly a gritty pleasure.
READ: Lono Waiwaiole reads from Dark Paradise at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651. 7 pm Monday, March 2. Free. All ages.