By Robert A. Stevens
The Last Death by John A. Roynesdal introduces detective Philip Michael Carnegie, of the Honolulu Police Department’s Special Division Detective Team. This mystery opens with the fifth murder in six weeks on Kuhio Beach, Wai’kiki. Despite the doubts of his teammates and supervisor and a dying man’s confession, Carnegie doggedly pursues the individual he has identified as the likely killer. Even additional deaths and another confession can't deter him as he works to build a case against his suspect.
This author does an effective job of establishing the setting, and his ear for the cadence of speech of the indigenous characters makes for realistic dialogue. I appreciated his attention to detail.
The plot, though, has some serious weaknesses. For instance, Carnegie stumbles upon his suspect by making a leap of reasoning based on a couple of unlikely coincidences. Furthermore, as additional victims meet their violent ends on this same stretch of sand, a reader can’t help but wonder why the beach isn’t swarming with undercover cops. Carnegie’s investigative technique and naiveté come into question with the following exchange with a bartender:
The detective said: “Any serial killers been in recently?”
Bruce stopped smiling. “What the hell you talkin about? Why you ask that?”
“Just curious. If you see anyone who looks like the killer type, call me.”
“Everyone who come in here, Meesta Carnegie, is the killer type.”
“Yeah. But the real killer type. You know, slightly psycho.”
“I could give you a list this long for that one.” He’d chuckled again, stretching arms out full length.
“I don’t need a list. Just a name. And tell Bruno over there the same.”
For about the first third of this book, the characters bellowed, sighed, addressed, responded, muttered, declared, replied, barked, stated, emphasized, exclaimed and asserted to an exasperating degree while the author evidently tried desperately to avoid using the word said. Fortunately, he eventually gave up on that, but should have gone back and edited the earlier chapters. In fact, this book could have benefited from a great deal of judicious editing. The narrative is rife with awkward phrasing and disjointed sentences. The reader finds the complicated plot hard enough to follow without being distracted by poorly constructed sentences such as, “A forty year old haole with thinning brown hair, a slight paunch and always a smile, he was also a bartender who made a hell of a great drink and some of the best mixed concoctions around Wai’kiki and Honolulu and not of the tourist kind either.” Or, “Her mention of Ka’a’awa, a beautiful village on the windward side of the island, brought pleasant thoughts back to Carnegie, the location he’d often drive by on his way to friends in Hale’iva up in the north shore.”
The author makes a couple of references to Carnegie’s obsession with Gertrude Stein, writing at one point, "She’d removed the logic of the internal sentence and by doing so had thrown the world into a tizzy". This influence might help to explain the author’s often odd phrasing, but that wouldn’t excuse such contradictions as, "He wondered if painkillers were being used, but didn’t ask, since obviously they weren’t".
Some readers might find The Last Death difficult to enjoy due to its overly complicated plot and unconventional writing style. Nevertheless, the author’s strong sense of setting and ear for the speech of Hawaii’s denizens afford the reader a vicarious visit to Honolulu.