The White Kahuna: Robert Louis Stevenson, Detective
Joseph Theroux (Samoa 1975-78)
$12.00 (paperback), $2.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by: Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
My immediate question about the author’s name – was he related to Paul Theroux? — was answered by a New York Times article, noting that “A new voice from another writing family, Joseph Theroux, debuts with Black Coconuts, Brown Magic, a somber comedy set in Samoa. He is the younger brother of Paul …” I also learned that Paul has four brothers and two sisters in another New York Times piece published in 1978 entitled “The Theroux Family Arsenal.” Like Paul, Joseph became a Peace Corps Volunteer. He served in Samoa where he taught in a school and eventually became its principal. He has lived in Samoa, Hawaii and Cape Cod.
My next question was “Robert Louis Stevenson, Detective?” Well, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, in a way, a mystery story. Here, Stevenson’s stepson Lloyd Osbourne, who Stevenson calls Foskins, acts as a sort of foil in the style of Sherlock Holmes’ Watson, waiting for the great detective to make brilliant deductions. I’d never known about Stevenson’s marriage to Fanny, Lloyd’s mother, who is absent during most of this story, but appears on a few pages as an acute analyst of mysteries and a charming tea companion.
Compounding the mystery is the fact that the inside title page is different than the cover: The White Kahuna: The Return of Robert Louis Stevenson Detective, by Lloyd Osbourne, Edited by Joseph Theroux. Do we assume that Theroux uses actual documents left by Osbourne? As everything in the book is based on historical fact, that had to be my assumption.
Joseph Theroux also published The Devil’s Throat or Robert Louis Stevenson, Detective in 2017, about the “volcano painter” Jules Tavernier, which was reviewed by Richard Wiley on Peace Corps Worldwide.
The plot of The White Kahuna centers around the Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani who was deposed by the American Provisional Government and placed under house arrest in 1893. Stevenson and his stepson investigate a series of decapitations and the theft of the Crown Jewels. When the Queen is falsely accused of demanding the beheadings of political traitors, she is linked to the crimes and Stevenson is compelled to solve them in order to clear the Queen’s name. She is also calumnized by over-zealous Christian missionaries for following the “Kahunas of the dark arts.” She is surrounded by enemies. “Regicide is threatened!” says Louis. “We must save the Queen.”
Theroux tells a fascinating tale about actual historical characters and is an authority on the history of Hawaii. He lists pages of bibliographic material and identifies each historical character on seven pages of references
I’ve visited the Hawaiian Islands many times over the last thirty years to visit my only grandchild, who was born and raised there. I’ve read lots of books and she has shared her knowledge of Hawaii with me, but I was very impressed by Theroux’s mastery of details of “the Kingdom.” For example, “We no longer had a queen or a king, but a president, an ex-judge named Dole.” He refers to Ah Fook, a Chinese man, as a “celestial,” a slur common at that time, and he correctly calls pure Hawaiians “kanakas.”
Most men of that era wore exaggerated facial hair, such as an attorney named Ashford who had a “…a jutting pitchfork beard, chin whiskers twisted into two prongs: it was a great age for the hirsute.” Joseph Theroux’s photograph on the book’s cover shows him sporting a full beard and mustache as well.
Theroux describes the contention between Royalists and the American Provisional Government, specifically among the Hawaiian police and guards of the Provisional Government. In fact, several guards are poisoned by peas laced with strychnine, purportedly by the Royalists. Seven men who witnessed the theft of the Crown Jewels were murdered by knives and poisons to silence them. The Queen had been betrayed by her closest servant, a German woman named Gertrude Wolf, who conspired in the crimes.
Stevenson and Foskins eventually find the stolen Crown Jewels hidden in a Castle armaments room, where Stevenson is viciously attacked by two guards as Osbourne defends him with swords and ends up seriously wounding both. While Stevenson is taken to hospital, poor Foskins is taken to prison, “The Reef”, for assaulting the guards. He is liberated after several grueling weeks and learns that Stevenson had been in hospital in the interim. The guards and their criminal leader, Thomas Evans, are finally tried and convicted of the murders and theft of the Crown Jewels.
There’s a fascinating account of the trial of a Hawaiian Kahuna, The Sorcerer John Alapai, who is the target of paranoid Christian zealots such as Reverend Sereno Bishop who abhors traditional spiritual practices. Bishop even accuses the late King Kalakaua of propagating “idolatry and sorcery” among the people in order to control them with “quasi-Masonic forms and regalia.” Alapai is a fair-skinned islander whom Stevenson supposes might be called a “white kahuna.” He is acquitted of sorcery by native elders, whom Bishop considers “…a hoodoo-ed lot.” Bishop is happier about the condemnation of Pulolo, the sorceress of Lana’i, of “frenzied crimes” for which she was sentenced to fifty years by a foreign jury, i.e., non-native. He compliments “the better class of Hawaiians” for welcoming the American flag as a sign of their deliverance from … the heathenish monarchy.”
The lovely hula dance was viewed as lascivious and banned by Protestant missionaries for years, but was encouraged again by King David Kalakaua. The Hawaiian language was also suppressed for decades until the 1960s when Hawaiians’ concern for their endangered culture surged and has been steadily rising ever since.
Stevenson also makes a presentation that Theroux quotes to the Scottish Thistle Club in Honolulu on Scottish history, an event posted in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 9/28/1893.
Robert Louis Stevenson returned to Honolulu once more but would die a year later in Samoa of a cerebral hemorrhage. His last words aboard the ship Mariposa, according to Theroux’s account, are prescient. As they pulled out of the harbor into the Pacific Ocean, he said:
‘This is the greatest Hawaiian jewel.’ And he flung out his arms. ‘This, the largest, deepest, safest harbor in the Pacific. This is the jewel they seek – the Harbor of the Pearl.’
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon, as well as several travel memoirs.(amazon.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).