The first thing you learn in author Jason Ryan's latest nonfiction book Hell-Bent: One Man's Crusade to Crush the Hawaiian Mob, is that there's such a thing as the Hawaiian mob. Who knew? Hell-Bent follows the Hawaiian murder investigation of Charles Marsland III, known on the island of Oahu as Chuckers. The book revolves around his father, Charles Marsland, a prosecutor who uses his son's murder as a jumping-off point for a career-long crackdown on Hawaiian crime.
It's an intriguing premise, especially since violent crime is not what comes to mind when you think of Hawaii. It's probably safe to assume travelers seldom imagine that bodies have been buried on those picturesque beaches. But, as Ryan points out in the book, one member of Hawaii's underworld, Ronnie Ching, preferred Makua Beach as a burial spot. "Best place in all Hawaii. The thing changes about three times a year — the beach formation. So you know, if you dig on certain times of the year sometimes the fucking thing is going to wash out," Ching says. "And then certain times of the year the fucker going to be 20 feet down instead of one, eh. Unreal, eh?"
Ryan's no stranger to writing about crime — his first book, Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs, was about gentlemen smugglers who brought large amounts of marijuana to South Carolina during the 1970s.
But marijuana smugglers don't produce quite the body count that the Mafia does, and they — usually, at least — don't bury people at a beach. So how did Ryan make a jump in subject matter?
"I had never been to Hawaii. It sounded exotic and fun, and I had no idea they had a crime problem. Ever. I was intrigued," he says. Ryan had previously interviewed a federal agent who worked in Hawaii, so he went back and asked about some of the agent's cases. When he heard about the mobsters, he knew he had his second book. "I start[ed] learning the whole story of Charles Marsland and decided to center a book around this man's saga."
The reader is told about Chuckers' murder in the prologue, so the main character in the book's remaining 250 pages is the elder Marsland. The story of Hawaii's mob in the 1970s and '80s wouldn't be complete without [the elder] Charles Marsland — he was a shit-talking, hell-raising attorney, complete with a personal vendetta against the criminals.
But Ryan doesn't lose sight of Marsland as the grieving father, either. The attorney visited his son's grave daily, but more than that, the reader sees Marsland's terrible temper, disdain for judges, and tireless crusade to get the criminals. "I imagine the reader starts losing sympathy for him," Ryan says. But, he continues, "He could have done two things: kept at his life and grieved silently, or been a positive, transformational force. Even though he was very controversial, I think Hawaii did have a significant crime problem there, and he addressed it. He had the courage to confront it and bring everyone's attention to it and suggest some solutions. I admire people in general who make the most of their time."
Ryan knows he's taking a chance with the subject matter of Hell-Bent. "I don't know if people want to read about the dark side of Hawaii, or if they just want to focus on the pleasurable side," he says.
Yet he writes of Hawaii's underworld artfully, informatively, and thoroughly, with a lot of the credit due to his research skills. Ryan obtained the taped testimony of Ronnie Ching after he secured a plea deal. He acquired a letter Charles Marsland wrote to his estranged daughter. He even interviewed the loved ones of Chucker's accused killers — a daughter who remembers her father burning possessions before being indicted and a girlfriend who was always aware of her boyfriend's hitman status.
As for Ryan's next book, the author will still be in his chosen genre of nonfiction, but he'll be leaving true crime behind — "I want to sleep at night," he says.