In "The Last Full Measure," musician Katy Green joins yet another all-girl ensemble, a quartet called the Swingin' Sarongs. And what's not for Katy to like? The gig pays the princely salary of $137.50 per week and takes place on board a cruise liner, the S.S. Lurline, which sails between San Francisco and exotic Hawaii, then still a U.S. territory. As this novel begins in December 1941, Katy's looking forward to sunshine in the middle of winter and the chance to swim at Waikīkī and to meet some handsome, rich men. The reader knows full well what's coming up, of course: murder and the attack on the Pacific Fleet.
At the novel's start, Katy's approached by two girls who were part of the Ultra Belles, the all-girl swing band from "Too Dead to Swing," the debut book in this series: bass player and now band leader Ivy Powell and trumpet player Lillian Vernakis. Despite constant talk of impending war, saxophonist and violinist Katy decides to join in the fun. Rounding out the quartet is Roselani Akau, a prickly singer, pianist and steel guitarist and a Native Hawaiian. It's Roselani's brother, the mysterious and philandering Bill Apapane, who ushers in the mystery -- and a murder.
Full marks to author Hal Glatzer for meticulously using preferred Hawaiian orthography (e.g., Hawai'i, Queen Lili'uokalani, ō'ō, ali'i, ki'i) and for providing a window into America on the cusp of entering World War II. From the postcards that decorate the start of every chapter to the vintage slang, Glatzer provides such authenticity to the third entry in the Katy Green mystery series. But what provides such great color to the novel also proves part of its downfall.
Glatzer has to spend so much time bringing his readers up to speed on Hawaiian and American history that the history lessons get in the way of what would otherwise be a taut and suspenseful piece. Bits that an intelligent person would have known in 1941 -- the shameful coup d'tat against Hawaiian Queen Lili'uokalani, the rapacious hold that the sugar and pineapple barons had on the workers (whether white, Japanese or Native Hawaiian), the rampant racism against the Japanese even before the Pearl Harbor bombing -- have to be interwoven into the narrative; however, Glatzer chooses to clumsily introduce these facts through long-winded lectures by Roselani, who's made to look like a prig in consequence. At one point, the impatient Ivy interrupts one of these disquisitions: "We've missed breakfast now. And we've got a little over six hours before our gig. D'you think you'll be finished by lunchtime?"
The frustrated reader will find herself nodding in agreement. Hal Glatzer just doesn't have the chops of, say, a Laurie R. King, a Sharan Newman, or a Tony Hillerman, who manage to seamlessly convey considerably more and more arcane details in their mystery series without interrupting the flow of their novels' plots with expository lectures. In their able hands, history, no matter how obscure, comes alive and adds to the enjoyment.
The mystery's not a bad one -- a hunt for a possibly mythical treasure buried in a remote part of the Big Island and the resulting murders by someone who apparently wants to clear the field of anyone but him- or herself. Or are the murders actually unrelated to the treasure allegedly buried 40 years earlier? But the reader can barely withstand all of the exposition needed to get to the payoff. The reader will guess who the murderer is before Katy does, although not by much. And the very, very suspenseful denouement will have you at the edge of your seat! Indeed, that action-packed ending manages to elevate "The Last Full Measure" from two stars to three.
Longtime fans of Katy Green will still enjoy "The Last Full Measure," despite its flaws; however, other mystery fans would be better served by reading the much better Too Dead To Swing and A Fugue in Hell's Kitchen: A Katy Green Mystery, the first two books in the Katy Green mystery series.