MAX LONG – The Lava Flow Murders. Series detective: Komako Koa #2. J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, 1940.

   After an expository overload in which the characters are introduced in quick succession, the first third of the book is spent on detailed descriptions of a volcanic eruption and the attempts of plantation policeman, Komako Koa, and the plantation owner, Tucker, in evacuating the visitors who have recently arrived from a yacht in the harbor.

MAX LONG The Lava Flow Murders

   They are also told to avoid a heiau (sacred Hawaiian shrine) to Pele. But two members of the party mock nearly everything to do with traditional Hawaiian beliefs and culture. One of those mockers, a brash woman, enters the heiau and is seen arguing with someone who the visitors believe is the embodiment of Hawaiian goddess Pele.

   The woman is almost immediately discovered dead — her head crushed by a coconut. For some reason the mainlanders actually believe that Pele is responsible and there is a lot of silly melodrama with people running around crying out to beware of Pele.

   None of this makes any sense. Koa takes advantage of this and rather than telling everyone that he knows the woman was murdered he lets them indulge themselves in superstitious gullibility. Irresponsible of a policeman and a bit contrived on the part of the author. But without that the rest of the story would not follow.

   Meanwhile, the volcano continues to erupt and encroaching lava flows continue to threaten the characters as well as the ranch house where they are staying. Then another person is hit on the head with a coconut and yet another person disappears.

   Soon it appears that a homicidal maniac is at work and the book takes on the atmosphere of And Then There Were None set in Hawaii with an active volcano as an added menace.

   Koa’s friend and the series narrator, Hastings Hardy, believes that a local Hawaiian has gone mad and is acting as a murderous nemesis for the offended Pele. There is a character called “the firewalker” who fits this bill. But Koa says no Hawaiian would enter a heiau and commit murder let alone do any of the other horrid things that the killer does (for example, a woman is thrown into the steaming, fomenting ocean where the lava flow ends and is basically boiled to death!).

   The book is not very well constructed and — believe it or not — is often dull. It’s a hodgepodge of a disaster adventure comprised of lots of scientific detail about volcanoes, lava flow, the different types of lava and how they behave, the types of rock and ash that accompany violent eruptions, etc. etc.

   The murder mystery is thrown in almost as an afterthought. The book could easily have been much shorter and the narrative handled less clumsily had the author focused on the story rather than focusing on the volcano and the lava.

   The only thing that holds one’s interest is the interspersing of Hawaiian lore and legends. The culprit, once one accepts Koa’s dismissal of anyone Hawaiian, is a bit obvious. The killer’s motive, set up also rather obviously way back in the first chapter when land rights and inheritances are discussed, and the denouement overall are less than satisfying.

LONG, MAX (Freedom). 1890-1971. SC: Komako Koa, in all.
      Murder Between Dark and Dark. Lippincott, 1939.
      The Lava Flow Murders. Lippincott, 1940.
      Death Goes Native. Lippincott, 1941.

     — Taken from the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin. A short biographical article about the author may be found here on Wikipedia.