Molten Death book cover

Trouble in Paradise

Author: Leslie Karst

Valerie and Kristen, a retired couple, are ostensibly visiting a friend in Hawaii to celebrate Valerie’s sixtieth birthday and catch some waves. But underneath it all, this is a trip intended to heal trauma. Valerie doesn’t know what to make of the world after her brother’s sudden, fiery death in a car accident; Valerie’s wife, Kristen, thinks that the big island is the perfect place to grieve and find comfort. That plan backfires when a feisty Valerie sees a leg disappearing in a lava flow and begins her own murder investigation. Soon, the tight knit group are embroiled in escalating island politics just as the lava begins to flow for real.

Molten Death is part tropical retreat, part foodie’s paradise, and part mystery. Unlike most cozy mysteries, this one is more realistic and addresses more hefty topics: Valerie is facing grief and a strained marriage; her friend and local islander, Isaac, is facing his own romantic problems; and the entire island is divided between a radical environmental group and a new geothermal plant. There is, literarily, trouble in paradise, and I appreciated the realism. Just because a cozy mystery focuses on creating a good atmosphere doesn’t mean it needs to be weak in other areas.

I did, however, actually want to spend a little more time in Valerie and Kristen’s marriage. It was refreshing to have two mature characters, but the tension and sudden, abrupt resolution left me wondering a bit about the couple’s dynamic. There isn’t really a spark, even when everything is going ok, and although Valerie, Isaac, and even some suspicious side characters get plenty of characterization, Kristen is mostly sidelined, unimportant in the tale. Her last-minute support seemed more helpful to the plot than a symbol of character development.

Isaac, on the other hand, is a different story. He was my favorite character in Molten Death and the author does a fantastic job allowing Isaac to act as island tour guide and cultural expert without making it seem forced. Isaac’s transition to Pidgin is authentic, and his explanation and pride in Hawaii’s unique culture is one of the strongest aspects of the story. It felt natural, the questions and answers between Valerie and Isaac, and the languorous way that the novel reveals increasingly interesting aspects of island life (such as the traditional way of fishing!) had me turning pages and longing for a tropical vacation and to try authentic Hawaiian food! Those volcanoes, though, sound like serious business, and the way the residents accept the implicit danger and last-minute evacuations is truly mind-bending. I want to visit Hawaii now, but I dare not ever dream of living there!

The mystery portion of the story is stronger than most cozies, but it still needs a little finessing. In true cozy mystery fashion, Valerie becomes obsessed and completely forgets about her safety. This is kind of necessary, as it is an amateur investigation, but sometimes I had to wonder at her bravery, just coming up to strangers and telling them what she saw and who she suspects. It’s a cozy trope, that’s for sure, but one that always takes me out of the narrative. How, exactly, is this trusting frankness in the face of a brutal murder a good idea? How do any of these cozy mystery amateur detectives live to the next book, much less the entire series? This is the one famous area where all cozies completely break our belief in the story. Molten Death is no exception.

The mystery gets complicated – there are a lot of potential suspects, radical groups, cheating husbands and angry wives, drug dealers, avocado thieves, and more! It’s a bit much to keep up with, but I appreciated the effort. For once, a cozy mystery actually gave readers the benefit of the doubt and figured we have enough intellect to follow a complicated mystery; not all of the threads relate, and the execution needs a bit of fine-tuning, but it’s definitely getting there.

I greatly enjoyed Molten Death and hope that further books in the series will emerge. The location is irresistible, and I sense that further books will grow our main characters and their relationships to one another. I think I’ll actually try some of those recipes listed at the end of the book too. They sounded amazing and sparked my desire to get some creative cooking in. Recommended.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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