A guest blog by mystery writer Neil Plakcy
Neil Plakcy is the author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu Fire and Mahu Vice
(August 2009), mystery novels which take place in Hawaii. Publishers Weekly
called Mahu Fire “Engrossing… a sharp whodunit,” and the book has received
enthusiastic reviews from Library Journal, Out, and many mystery and GLBT
For years, I wrote stories and novels about characters who were a lot like me. I changed the particular details—different color hair, different names, and so on. But they were like me, and like many writers, in that they stood on the sidelines of the story and observed what was going on.
Those stories and novels never got published.
Even my MFA thesis, a comic novel about Jewish family relationships and shopping mall construction, fell into that same trap, despite everything I heard from my professors and classmates. By design, my hero was a relatively sane guy surrounded by crazy people—in his family and at work.
He wanted something—like I had been told in graduate school he had to. He wanted love and success, he wanted his parents to be proud of him, and so on. But in the end, he wasn’t much of an actor—he was a reactor, and that’s deadly for a character you want readers to empathize with.
It wasn’t until I started writing about a police detective that I managed to crawl out of that trap. By its very nature, a police procedural with a detective as hero is all about solving the crime. At last, a solid, straightforward reason for my character to act.
Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka has to interview suspects, collect evidence, consult experts and, in the climactic scenes, face down danger and bring the guilty to justice. But even then, it’s so easy to let him step back. After all, the medical examiner is the one who does the autopsy; my hero just gets the results. The crime scene investigators pick up the trace evidence and analyze it.
I’m constantly forced to figure out how to keep Kimo front and center in the action, and make him not only the star of the book but the guy who solves the crime and brings everything together. In my first book, Mahu, which was just reissued by Alyson Books, Kimo gets dragged out of the closet, and then suspended, while trying to solve a difficult case. In order to clear his name, and overcome his own ambivalent feelings about his sexuality, he has to confront the bad guy and wangle a confession out of him.
Nobody else can do that, because no one else can solve his internal problems as well as the external ones.
In Mahu Surfer, the second book in the series, Kimo’s the only cop on the scene when someone starts shooting, at the climax of the book. Once again, he’s forced to act—take down the shooter and save innocent lives.
The third book in the series, Mahu Fire, presented me with a big problem. Kimo starts dating Mike Riccardi, a handsome, sexy fire inspector, and there’s a big blaze at the end of the book. Shouldn’t the fireman be the guy who saves the day? That’s what he’s trained for.
But Mike’s not my protagonist. Much as Kimo and I love him, he’s got to take a back seat. So I had to find a way for Kimo to emerge as the hero of the book, without making him do something stupid.
In every book it’s the same old story, in the end. Readers want to see a hero who acts rather than analyzes. And that’s what we have to give them, even if it means pulling out every last hair while figuring it out.