CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mystery writer Deborah Turrell Atkinson learned to surf along with her teenage sons. Her experiences helped flavor "The Green Room."
An isle writer pens a mystery set on Oahu’s North Shore
Clear blue skies, crystalline seas, sun, surf, sand. A landscape for paradise. Or murder -- if your mind is twisted that way, as is Deborah Turrell Atkinson's.
Meet the author
Deborah Atkinson will appear at these events:
Kaneohe Public Library: 2 p.m. Sunday. She will read from her book and talk about the writing business.
Barnes & Noble: Book signings, 7 p.m. Nov. 10, Kahala Mall; 7 p.m. Nov. 11, Ala Moana.
Atkinson's new mystery, "The Green Room," is set on Oahu's North Shore, in the midst of a big-wave surfing competition.
Quick take on the story: A promising young surfer is presented with a threat -- a Hawaiian war club studded with shark teeth -- just before a high-stakes competition. Shortly afterward, his body is pulled from the waves, crushed. Ancient legend, modern greed, the everyday surfing lifestyle, all are wound into the ensuing mystery.
The book is the second in a series built around lawyer-sleuth Storm Kayama, who first hit print in 2002 while exploring deathly incidents on the Big Island in "Primitive Secrets."
By turning to surfing for this book, Atkinson was in familiar territory, although she's more of a little-wave surfer. "I had to get all my big-wave information from other people," she says. "I like it when it's 1 to 3 and glassy."
Of the titular "green room," though, she knows of what she writes. The surfing term refers to that churning underwater place where a wave can hold you down and shove you around, to the point where you start worrying if you'll be allowed to breathe again.
Or, as Atkinson's heroine experiences it: "Storm had been there; she'd been buffeted in the tumult like a dead fish, disoriented to the point that she couldn't tell up from down. Even with her eyes open, there was no sense of direction. Everything was green."
Yes, she's been to the green room, Atkinson says, usually when venturing out into conditions too rough for her ability. "If you time it wrong, you get caught in that washing machine -- you really get tumbled around. Not to the point where you're going to drown, but you start to wonder, 'OK, when am I going to come out?'"
It is Atkinson's familiarity with Hawaii and surfing that makes "The Green Room" a strong mystery, says her editor, Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Press.
The publishing house, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., has about 250 titles in print, all mysteries, making it the second-largest publisher in the genre, Peters says. Atkinson's is one of about 40 Poisoned Pen books coming out this year.
Atkinson's first book, "Primitive Secrets," offered "a great sense of place and character and an appealing voice," Peters says, but suffered from some plot weaknesses. They worked together on those problems but couldn't resolve them all.
"A lot of the time, the first book turns out to be the practice book," Peters says.
Many readers will give a new author a try, forgiving plot weaknesses if they like the writer's style, she says. They'll come around for a second book but will be much less forgiving. "You really need to see a step forward."
In fact, "The Green Room" is the third Storm Kayama mystery. An in-between book, "Pele's Sigh," set on Kauai with a plot involving an abused woman, was turned down by Peters.
In "Green Room," she says, Atkinson rose above the weaknesses of past efforts to meet the requirements of a plausible mystery: terrible death, yes, but also high stakes that justify the machinations of the story.
In this case, the excitement of a high-stakes surfing competition helps drive the plot and gives the story a unique theme.
Atkinson moved to Hawaii in 1978, as a medical sales representative for Eli Lilly Co. The job took her to the Big Island often, where she picked up on a lot of the old Hawaiian legends.
Always an avid reader, Atkinson enjoys all types of writing, but settled on the mystery for her own work.
"Part of it was just the fun of it. My brother and I used to sit around and drink beers and think up plots."
So there was the motive. The opportunity came when her first child was born and she quit her job to stay home with him. "When you're a stay-at-home mom, people are always asking, 'What do you do?' 'Well, I write a lot -- well, I type a lot.'
"Publication is a validation or your efforts. You don't have to feel sheepish about it -- although I still feel sheepish about it."
She started out with some freelance work and short stories. Her first novel, "Shades of White," centered on a bakery in Chinatown and a heroin-driven mystery. It didn't sell, but drew enough constructive comments to fuel a new effort.
The character of Storm had a supporting role in that first book -- best friend of the heroine -- but by the time she started on "Primitive Secrets," Atkinson had decided Storm had better sleuth potential.
Storm at first was 35 and divorced, Atkinson says, but Peters told her that was too old. "You want to develop this character. Make her younger. Don't give her all these experiences yet."
So now Storm is 20-something and just setting up a law practice.
"Primitive Secrets" nearly sold out its 3,000 press run, not a lot in "Harry Potter" terms, but quite respectable for a first time out. It was enough to attract a New York agent and to press on.
"The Green Room" satisfies her two-book contract with Poisoned Pen. Peters says the two will meet soon to determine what comes next.
Atkinson hopes to take her Storm mysteries to all the Hawaiian islands -- she's started work on a new book set on Molokai.
"I've always thought Hawaii was vastly neglected when it came to mysteries," she says.
Still, she doesn't want location to become the focus of her stories. "People are the key. It's the stories they carry with them. That's how a place becomes interesting. ... What I'm trying do to is give a sense of place. I don't want it to overwhelm the story."