Retribution by Robert McCaw
Retribution is the fifth in Robert McCaw’s series of police procedurals set on the Big Island of Hawai`i featuring Chief Detective Koa Kāne. Hawai`i of course has been on everyone’s mind lately, and McCaw creates an atmosphere thick, not with wildfire smoke, but with tropical sights, smells, and sounds. McCaw’s writing style is straightforward, yet he musical Hawaiian language and incidental descriptions of the environment create a rich portrayal of “place as character.”
Even a tropical paradise has its ne’er-do-wells. Late one night, as the book opens, a Philippine freighter heads toward the Big Island’s port of Hilo. Before it arrives, a mysterious passenger, with a single suitcase and a long flat gun case, disembarks on a powerboat—the first of a small company of mysterious characters whose presence presages a succession of violent attacks that rock the island.
Koa Kāne is called to investigate the vicious stabbing death of a local thief and drug user, in which his brother is soon implicated. Kāne must withdraw from this case, no matter how convinced he is his brother is being framed. The chief replaces him with Deputy Chief Detective Moreau, but Moreau has little investigatory experience and is trailed by accusations of excessive use of force. His only asset appears to be the unflinching support of Hilo’s ambitious new mayor.
The author conveys the kind of stand-up guy Kāne is, not in so many words, but by showing how those around him act toward him. Attacks on these people circle closer and closer to Kāne himself. What triggered this eruption of violence? The possible suspects operate on separate political and historical planes, and you don’t put the pieces of the story together until the last chapters.
McCaw never sacrifices character development to the maintenance of the story’s fast pace. While it’s hardly a tropical vacation, you nevertheless feel like the author has taken you someplace distinctive, and given you an engaging story there.
Incident at San Miguel by AJ Sidransky
Murder, lies, and corruption are the crimes at the center of this riveting piece of historical fiction, Incident at San Miguel, by AJ Sidransky. Like me, you may not have known or remember that, in the 1930s, with war clouds massing, many European Jews immigrated to Cuba, which welcomed them, gave them safe haven, and encouraged their businesses to thrive.
They did very well until 1959 and Fidel Castro’s communist revolution, when the Jews’ situation, like that of all wealthy Cubans, quickly deteriorated. The novels main characters are two brothers—Aarón and Moises Cohan—on opposite sides of the new political divide. Aarón is a lawyer, about to be married, and Moises is his younger brother, in love with a political firebrand and leader of the Havana-based rebels. Despite their differences, they share one core value: an abhorrence for corruption.
Sidransky does a remarkable job describing the island, the Old Havana, the colorful streets, the foods, the music drifting from every radio, rum and cigars—all the minutia of daily life. What I particularly admire is how he conveys the substance of the brothers’ lives: Aarón trying to figure out which staff members to trust, Moises traveling the broken highways to remote manufacturers, both of them trying to relate to old friends without putting either themselves or the friends at risk. And the risks can be deadly. The spies of the Revolution are everywhere. You can be on the inside one day and on the outside the next. Jail or worse awaits people deemed traitors to the Revolution.
Sidransky gives an especially thoughtful portrayal of Moises. Despite his hardline views and occasional bursts of feverish political orthodoxy, he never becomes a two-dimensional character. He believes absolutely in his work, and his biggest blind spot is his wife.
Their livelihoods and even their lives threatened, many Jews (and others) try to flee the island—a dangerous undertaking demanding much planning and absolute secrecy. When Aarón realizes he cannot stay, and indeed, at other times over the years, the brothers desperately need each other.
In the last section of the book, the brothers reunite after decades of infrequent communication, and we learn much more about their lives’ key events. At the end, I expect you’ll be satisfied that the big questions have been answered and understand how each man has found his own way. You’ll want to read the introductory material that explains how the novel is based on a true story and where it diverges from that history to become exemplary historical fiction.