Sara Williams' Hawaiian Itch

by Philip K. Jason

SARA WILLIAMS, who spends a good part of each year in Fort Myers, has mixed a high-energy mystery cocktail laced with more than a little Hawaiian punch. One Big Itch, Williams’ third novel and the second to feature private eye John Spyer, intrigues and puzzles both protagonist and reader with an array of evidence, motives, and false trails. There are two sure things: the first is that academic superstar Randy Haverhill has been murdered. The second is that his childhood friend, Spyer, will not rest until he discovers the perpetrator. Then there is a third, less sure, thing: that Hawaii is haunted, and its local spirits will spin you around until they have brought what is hidden to light.

Haverhill, as we meet him, is at a crest of popularity. A dashing figure who has turned his studies in economics into mainstream best-sellers, he is enjoying the acclaim of a book-signing and the success of the Pacific Rim Institute, which he founded at the University of Hawaii. He is also enjoying (and occasionally suffering from) his subsidiary career as an unabashed womanizer. Trouble is already brewing in paradise. Haverhill’s second wife, Hillary, tells Spyer about a series of threatening incidents that her husband is not taking seriously. Their home had been broken into and severely damaged, personal papers had been ransacked, and the tires on Randy’s car had been slashed. A mysterious note scrawled in childish handwriting had been left behind. Not long after Spyer begins to look into things, Randy turns up murdered. The initial evidence points to his son, Toby.

Now it is Toby’s mother, the first Mrs. Haverhill, who enlists Spyer’s aid. Eva Haverhill, accomplished as a newspaper editor and self-credited with building Randy’s academic career, is waging a valiant battle against cancer. She needs Spyer to do the digging that will clear Toby. Of course, she herself can be considered a likely suspect – a woman scorned for a younger model and unappreciated for creating her ex-husband’s success. But wait a minute: what about Eva’s sons from her first marriage? Wouldn’t it be nice if they could get rid of the guy who had stolen their mother from their father, a man who never recovered from her betrayal. What about the woman who has publishing rights to a special Haverhill manuscript – a volume of sexual escapades? Won’t the price go up if it’s the final Haverhill publication? And just what has happened to that manuscript? Does Toby have it? Many people would benefit from having Toby accused of the crime, even if they are not likely suspects in the murder case. But what about those whose names are named in that racy tomb — perhaps they would like the book and its author to disappear. Perhaps they would like to see his probable heir in jail. Even Hillary Haverhill can be considered a suspect.

And whom does Toby suspect? And how threatened are those he suspects? And how safe is Toby, even if he is not guilty of patricide?

Poor John Spyer, he’s got to unravel this mess while keeping his girlfriend, Maya, from feeling neglected and while battling his own attraction to the vulnerable women who are depending on him.

Spyer is both rival and ally with the official case investigator, lead detective Telly Tabura, an old friend who gives Spyer enough rope both to help the investigation and to hang himself. It’s a respectful rivalry, and the two men, in fact, work together quite well, exchanging information as necessary to further the case. With Spyer as narrator, we follow not only his actions, but his deliberations and emotions. His cause and concerns become ours.

Ultimately, Sara Williams’ portrait of Hawaii, particularly Honolulu and environs, is the vehicle through which she captures her reader’s imagination. In One Big Itch, she cooks the glorious cultural stew of Oahu with all of its fragrances and tastes and textures, all the voices and patois, and all the good sense and superstition of its varied population. The contrasts of rich and poor, the range of racial traits and status, the landscapes and cityscapes, the flora, the history – all of these things are part of the tapestry Williams weave her carefully controlled plot.

In John Spyer, Williams has created a unique and durable character — a man of intelligence, loyalty, sensitivity, humor, and heart — whose exploits readers can only hope will be continued.

One Big Itch is one big victory for Sara Williams, a former magazine writer and newspaper reporter who lived in Hawaii for ten years.

When asked what skills or habits carried over from her experience as a magazine and newspaper reporter to the business of writing novels, Williams replied: “Discipline, of course. There’s a simple cure for ‘writers block’ in the newspaper business. It’s called a pink slip. I never feared finishing a novel because I soon realized that by the end of the year I’d turn out enough copy to make a couple of them. Another invaluable lesson from journalism is that all writing — even fiction — is collaborative. The writer is an actor on paper. The writer must rely on an intermediary to do some stage directing. That’s where the editor comes in. Too many beginning fiction writers put themselves out of the running by clinging to strategies that don’t work, and I did my share of that when starting out. But journalists also have to learn that there’s a downside when it comes to fiction. We can become too objective. Invention is forbidden in the newsroom while fiction is not about objective truth, it is about emotional truth. And finally, you can’t be a novelist in today’s world by asking someone to publish ‘my novel.’ You have to know you are going to write more than one of them because it may take years to find your own readers, and that’s what this business is all about.”

One Big Itch was recently released by ArcheBooks Publishing as an ‘ArcheBookZine,’ a full-length book published in magazine format. It is available from www.archebooks.com or from any major online or offline book dealer. And while you’re at it, don’t miss out on Williams’ earlier titles: The Don Juan Con and The Serenoa Scandal (in which John Spyer is introduced). •

from the July-August 2009 issue

"Fiction is not about
objective truth,
it is about
emotional truth."
"An invaluable lesson
from journalism is that
all writing – even fiction –
is a collaborative.
The writer is an
actor on paper.
The writer must rely on
an intermediary to do
some stage directing.
That's where the editor
comes in."