.Mystery writer Leslie Karst

A volcanic new direction

Local author and parttime Hawai’i resident Leslie Karst has made a volcanic pivot from her popular Sally Solari series with a brand-new adventure mystery, Molten Death. In this debut of her Orchid Isle series, Karst takes the reader well beyond touristic tiki bars and luau buffets. Once her protagonist sees a body being engulfed by hot lava, the hunt is on for a killer, an authentic hula and a cold mai tai. Molten Death is packed with island lore, simmering eco-politics, beaucoup hot lava and, of course, Karst’s tasty menus.

Did the experience of actually watching glowing molten lava from recent volcanoes trigger the idea for this book?

Leslie Karst: Yes and no. Molten Death has actually been a long time in the making. I came up with the idea for the story after I—like my protagonist, Valerie—was taken aback on my first visit to Hawai‘i at how very different the Big Island was from what I’d imagined it would be. But it was different in a captivating, almost magical way.

What makes the island special for this lava junkie is the presence of two active volcanoes. This ongoing volcanic activity has shaped not only the island’s geology, flora and fauna, but also the culture of the intrepid Polynesians who made the long voyage from the South Pacific to the archipelago by outrigger canoe some 800 years ago. Even today, inhabitants of the Big Island pay respect to Pele by leaving her offerings of gin and woven leis of ti intertwined with ‘ōhi‘a lehua blossoms along the rim of Kīlauea crater.

And when Pele sent a river of lava down through the communities of Leilani Estates and Kapoho back in 2018, I knew it was time to write the story. I had to share my awe and love for this geologically dynamic, culturally diverse and stupendously beautiful island and tell a tale of secrets and mystery, friendship and food, and hot molten lava.

This Orchid Isle Mystery is the first of a brand-new series for you. Was it refreshing for you as a mystery writer to move out in a new direction?

LK: It was. Much as I adore Sally Solari and the cast of characters in that series, after six books, I felt I was ready to move on—I’d told as much of Sally’s story as I needed to. I’ve also long been eager to set a book on the Big Island. A large part of that was my fascination with the volcanoes. But I was also taken with the unique cultural makeup of the place as a result of the history of immigration to the Hawaiian islands. Long after the original Polynesians came the whalers, then the missionaries and other haoles, who ended up in control of vast sugarcane and pineapple plantations. Next came wave after wave of workers brought in to work those plantations, including Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Filipinos. As a result, the Big Island is now one of the most culturally diverse places in all the country.

You include plenty of island politics in this new book. Do you have faith in your readers’ interest in the issues?

LK: My guess is that armchair travelers are happy to learn about this “real” Hawai‘i. No one wants to be preached to in a novel, but readers do expect an accurate portrayal of the place where the story is set. And in crime fiction in particular, cultural and political issues specific to the area can be vital to the crafting of the mystery, providing motives for the various suspects. Thus, Molten Death touches on such things as the Hawaiian sovereignty movement and the anger at what some longtime residents see as desecration of their land by the geothermal energy plant down in Puna.

Do you always know how the book ends? Or do you let yourself be surprised by the ultimate outcome?

LK: In the world of crime fiction, writers are often said to be “plotters” or “pantsers”—i.e, they either plot everything in advance or they write by the seat of their pants, making it up as they go.

For my first Sally Solari mystery, Dying for a Taste, I fell firmly into the first category, completing a detailed outline of the entire book before setting fingers to keyboard to begin writing the story. But with each succeeding book, I’ve slipped more and more into that loosey-goosey world of the pantser. That said, I never start writing until I know who did it, and also what prompts my amateur sleuth to investigate the death.

A book launch and signing with Leslie Karst, in conversation with Elizabeth McKenzie, takes place at 7pm on May 9 at Bookshop Santa Cruz. bookshopsantacruz.com


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