Char Siu is the third detective novel by Scott Kikkawa, an Asian American author. His writing can be circumscribed like a stylized police report but often ebbs into poetry “… smells like incense and star anise and dead fish.” Kikkawa draws on his career in law enforcement to bring realism and insight to the ongoing saga of detective Frances “The Sheik” Yoshikawa.

Sheik has married Ellen, a Korean American. She is an educated, smart, insightful, and intuitive reporter he met on previous investigations and they are expecting their first child. She makes Sheik a baloney and kimchee sandwich for his lunch in a brown paper bag with a heart drawn on it. It’s something that reminds and compels Sheik to be the best version of himself.

Set  in Honolulu in the 1950s, the multicultural characters and plot twists weave through a bygone era of incessant cigarette smoking, demeaning cracks about race and women’s anatomy, drinking on the job from hip flasks, and nefarious gratuities. It is a place and time when political correctness was more about voter presumption rather than vocabulary choice. Sheik starts a seemingly routine investigation which becomes  an ever-unfolding case of corruption, intrigue, governmental graft, and human depravity.

Sheik tries to hold himself to the highest ideals of his oath of duty to protect and serve in face of many challenges. ‘Priced out of paradise’ is a phrase that started long before 500-square-foot condosmoniums started selling in Hawai’i for $500,000. The financial challenges of a young couple in the ‘50s in Hawai’i and Sheik’s desire to provide for his soon-to-be family, causes him to make decisions he regrets and tries to change. As inevitable as change is, it is hard to do by choice. And regrets weigh heavy upon change.

Throughout the story, ‘doing the right thing’ is a theme with different definitions depending on perspective and begs the universal question: Is there such thing as right or wrong?

Manny Pacheco is the corrupt caption of the vice squad. Manny “The Man” meets with Sheik, who knows that he will be pressed to join the unethical profiteering within the police department. “I felt like a hog being fattened for the smokehouse…”

The Man is ambitious, inscrutable but also charming and entertaining. Sheik says “… it sure was hard to say no to The Man. He was a lethal combination of charmer and intimidator, you didn’t want to let him down and were afraid to at the same time. I think it’s true: the devil rarely shows up in a red suit n pitch fork, but more the devil with blue dress on or an offer help your family and mortgage payments and to do ‘the right thing.’”

Sheik continues, “We sat at a table in an open air lobby with green linen napkins in a glass bowl centerpiece filled with water and floating plumeria blossoms.” We wouldn’t step into the slaughter house, if it were running blood and smelled like smoke. The nature of temptation is that it catches us off guard and offers opportunities that seem lovely, desirable answers to our prayers.

Later, when things escalate, The Man says “…Wake up, Sheik. Get off your fucking high horse and take a good look at what’s really happening here. These crooks are making money off of men who are worse than they are. Whore mongers. Gamblers. Addicts. They’re taking money that would go to their wives and kids, but they’re giving it to crooks so they can play the hand of pai gau or get laid. And the crooks? They’re living like kings.”

Sheik says, “What’s your point?”

The Man says, “My point is that someone should take that money and put it back to right use.… Extra for our brothers, who put their lives on the line to make this island a safe place. Extra for their families…”

Later Sheik says to The Man:

“You’re not the first to dress up your greed as a righteous calling…”

Principles, values, even politics and religion seem always to adopt noble causes and clutch lofty verbiage. The price of paradise is not only expensive for the wallet, but also the heart and soul. Sheik must consider those costs, because he’s paying while working the case.

Char siu, or Chinese barbecue pork, like life, is salty, sweet, juicy and loved.  At the start of the story, char siu wrapped in pink paper is a food gift that accompanies the illicit money payoffs.

At the story’s end, char siu becomes a multicultural sign of redemption that accompanies knowing and hopefully in the end, doing the right thing.

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