BLOOD AND ORCHIDS by Norman Katkov
Kirkus Star


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Katkov, a screen/TV-writer who published two distinctive family novels in the late 1940s and two undistinguished medical stories in more recent decades, is the somewhat unlikely author of this engrossing, powerful crime/police/courtroom-drama--inspired by a true-life Hawaiian scandal of the 1930s. Hester Murdoch, submissive daughter of powerful Honolulu-society matron Doris Ashley, is cheating on her Navy husband Gerald with violent Lieut. Bryce Partridge in 1930; when a pregnant Hester threatens to Tell All to Bryce's wife, however, he beats her to a pulp--leaving her on a deserted road, where she's found by four timid Hawaiian youths and brought to a hospital. Then, before the numb Hester can tell the truth, mother Doris takes over, beginning a spreading, choking web of lies: those young Hawaiians are accused of assault and rape; Hester's abortion is a nasty coverup (with Doris blackmailing a top doctor); the Hawaiians go on trial--defended by young, Jame Tom Halehone, with help from self-exiled Hawaiian Princess Luahine (55, fat, tartly regal) and from Tom's new love Sarah, sister of defendant Joe Liliuohe. But the tense rape trial--with a gripping sequence involving race-conscious jury selection--is only the first of two courtroom dramas here. . . because, after the trial ends with a hung jury, Hester's unstable, unaware husband Gerald becomes bent on forcing confessions from the out-on-bail defendants. Three of them are kidnapped and nearly whipped to death by Gerald's Navy pals. Then Gerald himself terrorizes Joe Liliuohe, shooting him--a killing which Doris desperately, unsuccessfully, tries to cover up. So trial #2 is the murder-case against Gerald and Doris, defended by a Darrow-like legend who arrives in Honolulu with his much-younger wife Lenore. And the novel, while never losing the courtroom suspense (including outbursts from guilt-ridden Hester), eventually centers on tough, taciturn Honolulu cop Curt Maddox--who becomes increasingly angry about the racist coverups and sell-outs. . . while falling in love with decent, sex-starved Lenore. True, Katkov's prose becomes awfully flowery in this Maddox/Lenore romance. And there's a slightly strained subplot involving Maddox's mentor--a powerbroker with a mildly kinky secret. Everything else here, however, is managed with strong, tasteful relentless storytelling: the lynch-party mentality, the particular nature of Honolulu racism, the trial tactics, the bubbling-up of all those secrets. The characters, too, are unusually well-shaded--from the bitter, charismatic Princess to the Admiral who stands by Doris (and then melts in shame). In sum: topnotch, un-sensationalistic melodrama--and just the sort of high-class, theme-textured entertainment that cries out to be a big-budget, two-part TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 12th, 1983
Publisher: St. Martin's