Debra Bokur's new mystery, THE FIRE THIEF, was released by Kensington dives deeply into the parts of Hawaii not seen by tourists and she answers questions about how the book came to be.
How would you describe the plot of your book to someone and who would that be?
I’d love to describe the plot of The Fire Thief to my mentor, the late author Jack D. Hunter, who crafted a multitude of intricate plots in his body of work, including The Blue Max. He’d be quick to tell me where I could have done better. Here goes:
It seems like another beautiful morning on Hawai’i, until a local fisherman discovers the body of a teenage boy washed up in a tidal pool among the jagged lava rocks on Maui’s southeastern shore. On the surface, it appears to be a surfing accident—until a shark’s tooth is found embedded in a wound where the boy’s skull is partially crushed. Police Captain Walter Alaka’i calls in his niece, Detective Kali Māhoe, who serves as consultant to the Maui Police Department, and who also possesses a degree in cultural anthropology. There’s a ritual significance to the presence of the shark’s tooth that leads Kali to suspect a killer with ties to an old legend. When multiple sightings of a faceless spirit begin to be reported to the police, followed by a hideous offering left on a local man’s doorstep and the discovery of a second body, Kali knows that she must step up her efforts before the sands of Maui’s beaches become soaked in blood.
What was the a-ha moment that made you write this story?
As a magazine editor and journalist, Hawai’i was one of the many places I was repeatedly sent on assignment to cover wellness protocols and healing traditions for feature articles. I became utterly fascinated with how so many modern wellness practices have their roots in ancient healing traditions, from the many uses of medicinal plants, to chanting, dance and localized spiritual practices. The environment, too, is almost always a contributing factor, whether that’s the thick mosses covering ancient glaciers in Iceland that are used as a base for teas and tinctures, or the botanicals that thrive on the lush slopes of Hawaii’s mountains. I was in Hawai’i for an extended period of time with my husband filming a documentary about these healing protocols when it occurred to me that it would be interesting to create a detective who used that type of knowledge to solve mysteries and catch criminals. The more time I spent in Hawai’i, the more cognizant I became of how multilayered and complicated it is, and the amount of crime, poverty, injustice, and despair to be found just beneath its beautiful surface. That’s something that most visitors happily don’t see during their brief stays, especially at resorts where the experience is so often curated, but I wanted to explore the deeper truths to be found there—while still celebrating its astounding grace and beauty.
Who is your favorite character and why?
I enjoy spending time with all of my regular characters, but Detective Kali Māhoe is definitely the character I like the most. She’s strong, sharp and funny, but she’s also vulnerable, and she can do things that I’d never be brave enough to attempt. She lives alone with an enormous dog called Hilo who’s sort of a sidekick, and she has a strong affinity for nature and animals, so I know we’d get along. Though I’m a confirmed tea drinker and Kali prefers coffee, she doesn’t judge. She’s human, too—she gets angry and lonely, doesn’t tolerate arrogance, and has a sense of humor in moments when my own would likely become overshadowed by my impatience.
Which of your skill sets were useful constructing the plot?
Stubbornness, definitely. As in, every time I felt like the story was becoming too complicated and I should just go bake something or see a film or move to a different house without bringing my computer with me, I was too stubborn to give in to those temptations. Perhaps equally important, I’m very adept at research, thanks to all those years as a newspaper journalist and magazine editor. Because my Dark Paradise Mysteries series is embedded in the legends, myths and history of Hawai’i, a lot of in-depth research and interviews were required. In the process of researching, plot angles often occurred to me that would help tie my fictional crimes to some of the islands’ darker lore. Lastly, I love to observe people. Most of my professional magazine travel has been solo, and has taken me to numerous places around the world where I have no language skills. Sitting alone on trains and in cafés and airports, I’d pull out my notebook and make character sketches of the people around me, and jot down imaginary reasons for the things they were doing. Thinking up motivations for the actions of strangers was very useful in plotting.
What meal and drink do you think would pair well with your book?
A grilled mahi-mahi fish sandwich topped with pineapple coleslaw, served up with sweet potato fries and a tall glass of mango iced tea. This meal should absolutely be preceded by a Lava Flow cocktail, a drink featured in the book that’s ordered by Jack, a visiting volcanologist who’s being entertained by my detective over dinner. He’s a little shy about ordering what he imagines Kali will view as a silly tourist drink, but she assures him that in light of his occupation, he really has no choice. To make him feel more comfortable, she orders one as well.
Debra Bokur has traveled the world as a writer, filmmaker, and journalist for various national media outlets. She’s won multiple awards, including a 2015 Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism. She was the poetry editor at a national literary journal, and her poetry and short fiction have been widely published.