It's the Kingdom of Hawaii, 1889. King Kalakaua is on the throne, but secret societies are at work throughout the islands. When renowned volcano painter Jules Tavernier is murdered in his Honolulu studio, Robert Louis Stevenson and his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, his writing partner, investigate their friend's death. A secret royal society seeks to preserve the culture and traditions of the past, while a Chinese opium tong uses murder and larceny to control the islands. Stevenson and Osbourne are assisted by Hawaiian policeman David Naho'olewa, and later the King himself, to expose corrupt doctors in league with the gangs, and ultimately discover the long-lost treasure of Kamehameha the Great. But first the detectives must escape the royal tomb where they have become imprisoned by the tong.
Theroux (Black Coconuts, Black Magic) couples a plausible fictional depiction of Robert Louis Stevenson with an intriguing whodunit plot based on a real-life unsolved mystery. In 1889, while Stevenson is living in Hawaii, the corpse of Jules Tavernier, a “celebrated painter of Plains Indians and Hawaiian volcanoes,” is found in his Honolulu studio. Since the doctor who examines the body attributes his death to “excessive use of alcoholic drinks,” there’s no inquest. In Theroux’s telling, which is based on a claim that Stevenson’s stepdaughter would later make in her memoir, Tavernier was shot through the heart, and someone is covering up the truth. Aided by his stepson, Samuel Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson searches for clues and motives, as well as links between the painter’s death and other murders. In Theroux’s hands, Stevenson is an effective sleuth, and Sherlockians will be amused at his echoing Holmes’s cynical view of doctors (“When a medical man turns to crime, he is the worst of offenders”). Readers will hope to see more of the famous author as detective. (BookLife)