Ambrose Bierce And The Death Of Kings, by Oakley Hall
Did you know that noted cynic and general sourpuss was the hero of a series of mystery novels set in and around San Francisco? I didn’t either, until reading this book. On the surface, Ambrose Bierce would appear to be an obvious choice for a second life as a fictional hero of mysteries. He was a fond writer of crime fiction and generally prided himself on his brainpower, and he lived in an area where there were always a lot of mysterious things going on related to moral and political corruption, which remains true today. And certainly this novel has a lot to do with moral and political corruption, as it involves some fictionalized goings on related to the death of the last King of Hawaii that dealt with questions of religion, political legitimacy, and the imperialistic desires of many to spread manifest destiny across the sea and for the United States to secure Pearl Harbor for itself, all of which would have fateful long-term consequences. On the surface, at least, this book has all the materials for a great mystery novel, but unfortunately this novel is not one that satisfied me the way I hoped it would.
This particular novel takes place over a short period of time when King David Kalakaua moved from Southern California to San Francisco to die of Bright’s Disease. Our heroes, the narrator Tom Redmond and his mentor, fellow reporter (and real life cynic) Ambrose Bierce, are hired to solve the mystery of a princess who has disappeared. It so happens that she is in love with her cousin (?!) and step-brother (!), who is a potential heir to the throne, and it happens that she has a good but disappointing reason for disappearing because she doesn’t want the prince to abandon the possibility of ruling Hawaii in order to take care of her in her dying days from an incurable and highly contagious malady. Meanwhile, our hero Tom Redmond engages in sexual tourism with a half-Hawaiian, half haole young woman whose mincing poet uncle is trying to pawn her off to rich white people in California and prevent her from going back home to Maui, even as she sleeps with Tom and finds herself pining after a marriage with the scion of Hawaii’s biggest sugar baron who is waiting for his wife to die. Of course, when people start dying by being bludgeoned by rocks, the mystery takes a far darker turn, especially when Tom is arrested for one of the murders.
So, why is this novel not as good as one would hope? The biggest problem is the book’s framing. The author (and his mouthpieces the detectives) make a big deal about their superiority to Judeo-Christian standards of ethics, as can be seen by their enjoyment of fornicating and their trickery involving spiritualism and its practices, including voodoo and seances. Yet while the authors fancy themselves to be above the level of morality, so much of the plot and its conclusion revolve around moralism, whether it is Bierce whining about the corrupt politicians and the yellow journalism and the hypocritical motives for imperialistic expansion, or the author’s (and Bierce’s) hostility to evangelical Christianity, something which I find personally offensive. On top of that, the framing isn’t even properly enlightened in that it views Princess Haunani as merely a trophy wife or sexual object for various white men in competition with each other and it makes the villain a foppish but racist homosexual who has been trying to cover up his niece’s identity her entire life. This book can’t even be properly immoral in that it simultaneously manages to offend both Christian and pro-LGBTQ+ sensibilities simultaneously. And it is a rare novel that can manage to screw that up.