The figure was fifteen inches in height, and carved from that ancient ivory that comes down to China from the islands off Siberia. The image was that of Kuan-yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, protector of shipwrecked sailors, and bringer of children to childless women. It lay upon the sand near Teo’s outstretched fingers, its deep beige ivory only a shade lighter than the Hawaiian’s skin.
Tom Gavagan finds an old family friend dead, shot in the back. The only thing out of place is a statue of a goddess foreign to the Hawaii islands, a statue worth more than the old Hawaiian’s other possessions. But as Gavagan checks up on Kamaki, the man’s son and last surviving man in the family, he finds that Teo and Kamaki were caught up in the events surrounding a four-year-old art heist. Can Gavagan pry Kamaki free from the schemes ensnaring him? Or will both men, now stranded sailors, end up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean?
Louis L’Amour pens a satisfying and straightforward adventure in “The Hand of Kuan-yin”. While L’Amour is now best known for his Westerns, he brings the same eye for location, detail, and verisimilitude to Hawaii. Written in 1956, three years before Hawaii’s statehood, “The Hand of Kuan-yin” was part of a trend in Hollywood of shifting from the imaginary islands of tiki bars to the real paradises of Hawaii. Beau L’Amour writes, in the afterward to May There be a Road:
“The Hand of Kuan-yin” was written in 1956 and was sold with the intention of its being the pilot episode for a television show called Hart of Honolulu. I have no idea if this show was even shot, or, if it was, if it ever aired. Louis wrote the story in the weeks after he and my mother acquired an ivory Kuan-yin, the first piece of valuable art they ever bought (not as valuable as the one in the story by a long shot).
As mentioned, the story is a straight-forward crime adventure, with the hero Gavagan cut from the same mold as the Sacketts. The chinoiserie elements around the Kuan-yin stature are understated, serving more to emphasis that Hawaii is a fault line between native, Eastern, and Western cultures. Kuan-yin also allows for a nice fatherly character moment surrounding old Teo.
“The Hand of Kuan-yin” may not shine among the jewels in the crown of L’Amour’s best works, but even an average L’Amour story is worth the read. Especially when it trades L’Amour’s beloved deserts, prairies, and Rocky Mountains for new lands.