Sara Sue Hoklotubbe is known for writing an acclaimed series of female-oriented mysteries but her latest book, which has a strong Maui element, is a fine example of creating very likable characters who remain vivid and linger long after the book is put down and multiple mysteries are forgotten.
"Sinking Suspicions" is centered on Sadie Walela, a middle-aged small-ranch owner in Oklahoma. She's decided to give up her job in a small-town bank to become a travel agent. At the same time, she is hesitantly in love with a cop.
The reader first meets the cop, Lance, searching for one of Sadie's neighbors. He is also a protagonist. The book unfolds with alternating chapters told from the perspective of Sadie and Lance. He's a bluff, down-home police officer who pursues bad guys with unflagging persistence. While devoting himself to his job, he's a hesitant suitor who may or may not be ready to settle down with Sadie.
The neighbor is Buck, a Cherokee warrior happily and spiritually spending his last years on a small ranch he maintains for the benefit of a band of wild mustangs. As the book progresses, the reader learns Buck was a decorated combat Marine with a secret. He also has a rapacious niece, his only surviving relative.
The niece is a real piece of work. She is flamboyant, has swapped her Cherokee name for a ditzy Anglo name and lives in California. She wants desperately to acquire Buck's ranch. Just why is another mystery. Without giving anything away, there is more than the land involved.
Secondary characters are fully fleshed out in the context of Lance's investigation of the murder of an identity thief with ties to Maui. How this Samoan acquired Buck's identity is another mystery solved late in the book. The background characters include Sadie's beloved horse and a devoted, if semiwild, wolf dog. The latter is a key player in resolving part of one mystery.
During the course of learning what she needs to know as a travel agent, Sadie makes a trip to Maui. She tries but fails to get Lance to go with her. On Maui, Sadie meets Pua, a Hawaiian who claims to be part Cherokee. Sadie dismisses the claim. "Everyone wants to be part Cherokee," she says.
Even so, Sadie comes to love Pua's classic aloha. Sadie's island indoctrination includes a trip to Lanai to meet Pua's mother, who has an old-style Hawaiian heart.
Descriptions of Maui are mostly accurate, although the advance copy of the book has a few of the geographical glitches - not to mention an earthquake - common to what could be called parachute writers, individuals who drop in for a quick visit.
Nonetheless, Maui readers will be charmed by the fact Sadie comes to love Maui and its people. It's easy to come away from reading Hoklotubbe's book feeling she understands the parallels between Cherokee and Hawaiian cultures. The writer is a Cherokee tribal citizen and grew up on Lake Eucha, Okla., where most of the book is set.
Back in rural Oklahoma, a merciless sun is baking the landscape and lending an urgency to a search for Buck, another mystery even though the old Cherokee lives alone and is known to take off unannounced. Buck's disappearance causes Sadie to cut short her trip to Maui. She loves the old man and believes she can help find him. She tries to temper her fears by knowing Buck is tough and land-savvy.
The last mystery is resolved when Pua's mother dies. Sadie, Lance and Buck, who spent time on the island as a member of the 4th Marine Division during World War II, fly to Maui for the funeral. Sadie thinks the trip will open up Buck and relieve what may be post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hoklotubbe telegraphed the resolution of the main mystery but readers will be so entranced by the characters and settings they shouldn't mind.
This multiple-mystery is cleanly written. The 224-page book is a quick, enjoyable read with a love interest that should please even the most devoted romantic. The storyline involves Maui enough to satisfy island readers.
"Sinking Suspicions" is due out Sept. 4. The publisher is The University of Arizona Press, Tucson; 224 pages; paperback; $16.95. An electronic version will be available at the usual Internet sources.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.