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Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings Hardcover – October 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

While King Kalakaua of Hawaii lies dying in a San Francisco hotel room, celebrated author-cum-detective Ambrose Bierce and his young companion, Tom Redmond, get the call to find a missing member of the royal entourage in this entertaining, if choppy, historical set during the winter of 1890-91. As in Hall's first novel in the series, Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998), Redmond plays an engaging Watson to Bierce's Holmes. Redmond falls in love with the "monumental" Haunani Brown, a beautiful Hawaiian who is visiting her uncle, California poet Edward Browne. Simultaneously, millionaire Aaron Underwood hires Bierce to find Princess Leileiha, who's betrothed to potential heir to the throne Alexander Honomoku and is a close friend of Haunani. The two threads of the story romance and mystery are woven inevitably, expertly, together. Since the king has named no successor, the fate of Hawaii as well as that of U.S. imperial aspirations, and the ambitions of Underwood's father, the frightful sugar baron Silas Underwood hangs in the balance. Not surprisingly, murder, mayhem and even magic come into play. The sprinkling of old-fashioned and Hawaiian terms throughout the text, such as "instanter" and the delightful "panipani," adds period flavor. The author, alas, breaks up the narrative with short expository sections that read like nothing so much as afterthoughts. On the whole, though, this book makes for a captivating rollick through Old Frisco.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The second adventure of San Francisco journalist Ambrose Bierce and fellow reporter Tom Redmond takes place in 1890, as King Kalakaua of Hawaii becomes ill during a visit to America and is taken to San Francisco to await his death. There are various possible successors to the throne, and interested parties crowd the king's bedside, hoping for a new monarch sympathetic to their points of view. Hawaiian nationalism and tradition collide with American desire for sugar profits and control of well-situated Pearl Harbor, as well as the eventual annexation of the islands. In the midst of the uproar, Princess Leileiha, the fiancee of a possible royal successor with close ties to wealthy American sugar magnates, disappears. The royal counselor is then murdered. Bierce and Redmond must untangle complicated political and family ties, as well as a bit of Hawaiian voodoo, to find the princess and solve the crime. Excerpts from Bierce's Devil's Dictionary heading each chapter add humor to this intelligent, richly detailed mystery. Carrie Bissey
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (October 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670030074
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670030071
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,751,417 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By David W. Nicholas on February 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I admire Ambrose Bierce's work above all other 19th century writers, with the exception of O. Henry. I enjoy visiting San Francisco. So when I saw that Oakley Hall had written a sequel to Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades, I was eager to read it. Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to the promise of the first book.
Bierce was a short story writer and biting satirist who wrote newspaper columns and generally made a public nuisance of himself in the latter half of the 19th century. A Civil War veteran, his writings on the war anticipate much of the disillusionment and despair that characterizes later writings by Viet Nam veterans. He also wrote a considerable body of horror and ghost stories that are more modern than you might expect. He disappeared in the Mexican Civil War in 1914, and his fate has never been determined reliably. The movie Old Gringo speculated on this, and others have done so. One theory had it that he'd written The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which anyone who'd read Bierce would know was highly unlikely. He despised novels.
So here we have the second of a series of novels about him. In the first there was motivation for him to get involved in the mystery, but here there isn't. Instead we have a missing Hawaiian princess, a dying Hawaiian king, and Bierce looking for said princess. There's no explanation of why Bierce is doing the looking, and no explanation of why his friend Tom Redmond decides to help. They just do. And there's also no suspense: it becomes obvious that she's gone of her own volition, and a friend tells them she's safe. Half of the book slides by before we finally get to some suspense.
An elderly Hawaiian judge is killed, and his rooms set on fire.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on November 5, 2001
Format: Hardcover
You can almost smell the literary mothballs as this very old-fashioned mystery, set in Gay Nineties San Francisco, unfolds and develops. Adhering faithfully to the tone and atmosphere of the time, and using much of the vocabulary and style of the period, Oakley Hall fills his pages with historical detail as he fleshes out a story of the death of King Kalakaua of Hawaii, including the rivalry for his throne, the influence of the sugar barons, and the pressure of the U.S. government for a lease on Pearl Harbor as a Pacific port. Despite the complex subject matter, Hall's style is surprisingly economical and restrained, and he advances the action quickly, presenting Ambrose Bierce, a real 19th century journalist and writer, as his clever, Holmes-like detective, with the narrator, Tom Redmond, as his much more sympathetic, Watsonian sidekick.

Old Hawaiian customs, sensitive issues of race and color, and America's imperialism all directly affect this plot, and Hall takes great care to depict these issues accurately. Unfortunately, the book gets bogged down in its own minutiae. Well over two dozen characters play roles here, some with similar names, and the reader, not knowing who may eventually become important in all the plots and subplots, must keep track of them all in order to understand the action. Additionally, the main plots regarding succession to the Hawaiian throne involve complex genealogies and political motivation, and there are innumerable subplots and digressions.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By booksforabuck VINE VOICE on November 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover
It is near the end of the 19th century and America's destiny seems to compell it to reach further west, to the independent kingdom of Hawaii, already largely dominated by the descendents of white missionaries now turned merchants and sugar barons. The King of Hawaii is in San Francisco, dying without clear indication of the succession. When a Hawaiina princess vanishes, poet and newspaper columnist Ambrose Bierce is called upon to find her. Bierce, in turn, asks for help from his friend Tom Redmond, the novel's narrator.
From the start, it is clear that there is more than a missing person. Bierce and Redmond run into the woman's sufferage movement, spiritualism, and the powerful force of Hawaiian magic. When a Hawaiian judge is found murdered, Redmond finds himself under attack from Hawaiian magic.
Author Oakley Hall has created a delightful view of America at the turn of an earlier century. Bierce, with his cynical, yet somehow optimistic, view of the world, makes an effective sleuth, doomed to be disappointed by those he attempts to save. Negative historical attitudes toward women and persons of color are integrated into the story without apology yet without any sense of approval either.
As Bierce explains near the end of the novel, all of the clues are available to the reader. Even those mystery readers who guess the killer will enjoy Hall's smooth writing, the depth of historical detail, and the insights into an important historical/literary figure in Ambrose Bierce, turn of the 19th century America, and the end of the history of Hawaii as an independent country.
A well written and completely enjoyable novel.
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