You do need a little light reading to start the new year off right, don’t you? Then you need Bill Pronzini’s latest mystery, The Paradise Affair.
From the title of the book you might expect it to be about Hawaii.
But after reading and enjoying this easily digestible tale, the conclusion I reached is that I never want to visit Hawaii!
This may surprise you.
Or maybe not.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As you may or may not know, Pronzini is a very competent and extremely prolific writer of mysteries, thrillers, westerns, and other genre pieces. He is perhaps best known for his Nameless Detective works, some of which can be violent and disturbing, but his much lighter Carpenter and Quincannon books have been coming on strong. Many of the entries in this latter series were written in collaboration with his wife, the better-known Marcia Muller. The Paradise Affair is not a collaboration; this locked-room mystery is a solo effort.
What makes this series different from most others is that the books take place in San Francisco near the end of the 19th century: 1898 in this case. The flavor of San Francisco at that time is an important component of the series, and the politics of the time play a role in this particular volume. You know—the Spanish-American War, the annexation of Hawaii, the advent of modern technology. Actually, I hadn’t been sure when the second of these events took place, so I had to look it up as 90% of the story takes place in Hawaii, not California. In fact, I looked up a lot while reading, and learned a lot.
Historical mysteries, of course, are not the least bit rare. They always make me slightly nervous, as I can’t help keeping one eye open for anachronisms: no one wants their willing suspension of disbelief spoiled by an anachronism. Fortunately I didn’t spot any here—well, hardly any, as contemporary writer W.S. Gilbert would have said. (I’m no expert by a long shot, but I can say that almost nothing stood out.) Actually, there’s one potential anachronism here: the overt acknowledgement of racism and sexism. One of the detectives is a woman, a fact that is greeted with surprise by many of the minor characters. The dual effect is a conclusion that female detectives must have been rare but not non-existent at the time; I don’t know whether either half of that statement is historically accurate. The presence of overt and covert racism is a bit more complicated: of course all forms of racism existed, and presumably some people objected to it, and it might be particularly likely in Hawaii, although many locals would deny it—even back then did they consider Hawaii a multiracial paradise?—but the small amount of research I did suggested that the word “racism” wasn’t yet in use in 1898, although the female detective does use it in this word of fiction. So I think that counts as an anachronism.
Finally, you may wonder at the conclusion I announced in the fourth paragraph up at the top. Why would a book that takes place in paradise make me never want to visit there? The unpleasant weather, that’s why! Yes, I know, I know, most people seem to love tropical weather and don’t consider Hawaii unpleasant. But I hate both heat and humidity, and nothing in this tale makes me change my mind. Keep me out of the tropics!