Chandler, Kamehameha, and the Mean Streets of Hawaii

Mark TroyMark Troy grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. Following college, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteers in Thailand with his wife, Mary Frances. From Thailand, the Troys moved to Hawaii where, after earning his doctorate at the University of Hawaii, Mark began writing mystery stories featuring a Honolulu private eye. A few years later, Mark took a job at Texas A&M University and moved his family to Texas, but left his detective in Honolulu to fend for herself. Fend, she did. His first novel, Pilikia Is My Business, was nominated for a Shamus Award for best first private eye novel. His short stories have been published in numerous magazines, ezines and anthologies. Otto Penzler and James Ellroy, editors of Best Mystery Stories, 2001 listed Troy’s story, “Teed Off,” as one of the top fifty. His latest novel, The Splintered Paddle, will be published in June, 2014, by Five Star Publishing. You can find out more about Mark Troy’s stories at


Raymond Chandler, who, more than anyone, defined the hardboiled private eye, said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Let’s skip for the time being his assertion that the eye is a man. There has been an abundance of compelling female eyes since then. In fact, there were plenty of female eyes who preceded Philip Marlowe, but that’s another post. My eye, Ava Rome, is a woman, and that doesn’t raise an eyebrow with readers. What does raise eyebrows is her beat—Honolulu, Hawaii.

In most people’s minds, the image of Hawaii is filled with waving palm trees, golden sands, and mai tais at sunset. How mean can those streets be?

When Chandler spoke of the “mean streets” he meant a place where mayors use murder for political gain, where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg hooch sends a man to jail for having a pint of whiskey in his pocket, where a community’s elite dine in restaurants owned by men who got their start running brothels. In short, the “mean streets” are places where the powerful and privileged abuse their power or take advantage of their status to oppress others, where social injustice is rampant, where corruption is the norm. Hawaii, no less than any other place, has its share of mean streets.

The history of the islands is replete with attempts by wealthy and powerful people to exert control over ordinary citizens. Beginning with the arrival of the first Europeans to its shores, the history of Hawaii has been one of struggle over land ownership. The losers have been the original people of the islands, the native Hawaiians. Ravaged by European-imported diseases, dispossessed from their lands, native Hawaiians today number only a small fraction of what they were when the Europeans arrived. Small though their numbers are, native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented among the poor, the homeless, the jobless and the incarcerated.

It is not only native Hawaiians who have suffered the mean streets. For over a hundred years, beginning in 1866, the Hawaiian government and then the American government criminalized leprosy and imprisoned thousands of people on an inhospitable peninsula on the island of Molokai’i. Their only crime was that they were suspected of having the disease. During World War II, many American citizens were relocated from their homes and families to concentration camps. Their only crime was that they were of Japanese descent. To be sure, Hawaii Japanese were not relocated at the same rate as mainland Japanese, but that was because the landowners needed workers on their plantations, not out of any sense of justice.

Today, visitors to Hawaii will drive past glittering, gated homes and golf on world class courses, but will probably not see, just a few miles from Honolulu, the single largest homeless encampment in the United States. Hawaii’s high housing costs and low wages result in an income disparity that breeds injustice. Where there is income disparity, there is crime and corruption. So, yes, there are mean streets in Hawaii. They are located in a side of paradise tourists seldom see.

Though Hawaii has many of the same problems that afflict other modern societies, Hawaiians have a long tradition of resisting mistreatment of the common people and of taking care of the weak and helpless.

The title of my book, The Splintered Paddle, refers to a Hawaiian story about a young warrior named Kamehameha, who set out in a canoe to raid a small village. Warriors were members of the ali’i, the chiefs, and thus had authority and privilege. Kamehameha spotted some fishermen and their families on the shore and plunged into the surf to attack them. Most of the people fled except for two unarmed fishermen. Kamehameha, armed with a spear, pressed the attack. Unfortunately, the warrior’s foot slipped into a crack in the lava and was caught. The fishermen seized their advantage and attacked him with a canoe paddle, beating him until the paddle broke.

Later, after Kamehameha had united the islands and become the first king, he reflected on the incident and proclaimed, as his first edict, that the defenseless would be safe from harm. The law was known as Kanawai Mamalahoe. Kanawai is the closest word Hawaiian’s had to “law.” Mamala means “splintered” and hoe means “paddle”—The Law of the Splintered Paddle. Some accounts say that he sought out the two men who had beat him and gave them gifts to compensate for his abuse of his position. The law is basically understood to mean that citizens have a right to defend themselves against mistreatment by the government and that the weaker members of society can expect protection from the more powerful members. The state constitution makes mention of the law and the Honolulu Police badge bears an image of crossed canoe paddles in reference to the law.

The Splintered PaddleNow we jump to the present day. Ava Rome, the private eye in my story, adopts the Kanawai Mamalahoe as her calling. She will protect anyone who is defenseless. Ava is not Hawaiian herself, though she was born in Hawaii, the daughter of a career Army man stationed in Honolulu. The family moved around quite a bit so that Ava had no place to call home until she returned to Hawaii as a Military Police officer. After leaving the Army, Ava chose to stay in Honolulu and do the only work she knew how to do—investigations and protection.

Her belief in the Law of the Splintered Paddle is fueled by a burden of guilt over her failure, as a teenager, to protect her brother from bullying. She is determined not to fail anyone else. She takes on a prostitute who is being harassed by a high-ranking police officer. He has forgotten the image on his badge. She also takes on a troubled teenager who has fallen prey to her own bad decisions and to the predations of a marijuana grower.

Ava’s greatest challenge, however, arrives in the form of an ex-con, whom she had arrested when she was an MP. He is out. He is seeking revenge and he harbors a secret from her past. When Ava took on the prostitute as a client, she earned the hatred of some in the police department, so she cannot count on them for help. In fact, the police officer, who was harassing the prostitute, joins forces with the ex-con against her.

The Splintered Paddle is the story of a private eye, Ava Rome, and her personal foray down the mean streets of Hawaii to protect the defenseless in the dark side of paradise tourists seldom see.