McGee Wannabes: Charles Knief’s Honolulu Tough Guy John Caine

Why most of the McGee-like protagonists who have come along since the mid-1980s haven’t caught on, I cannot say. I’m on record here noting that my particular favorite is Geoffrey Norman’s Morgan Hunt (four books and out). Yet another worthy contender is John Caine, the Honolulu-based tough guy/knight errant of Charles Knief. His four-book series started in 1998 and ended in 2001 with nothing further in evidence.

The first book, Diamond Head, introduces an ex-Navy Seal named John Caine. He lives aboard a sailboat and does odd-job investigations about town. He’s more of a proper gumshoe, with license and all, and not a “recovery consultant.” But it seems his predilection is far less for money and more for tilting at windmills and righting wrongs, à la Trav. He tells his story in first person—always a plus in my book.


This debut tale begins when Caine is approached by an old Navy comrade, who is acting as an intermediary for a retired admiral they both served under. The admiral’s beautiful daughter, it seems, was murdered horribly some months earlier on Oahu. He wants Caine to look into the matter. The Navy comrade (the intermediary) makes it clear that the most important factor is keeping the beloved old admiral as free of scandal and shame as possible. Discovering the facts of the daughter’s dark ending is vital, but the deep-sixing of them is far more important.

Beginning with the help of a local power broker (think Chinese Don Corleone), Caine learns that the daughter was into some deep shit with another local gangster, a haole (Hawaiian for “white guy”) named Thompson. Coincidentally, the Chinese crime lord’s son is involved with Thompson, complicating matters for Caine. The upshot is that Caine learns Thompson is producing grimy, gritty porn. And not only porn, but snuff flicks. Rich Japanese men pay to have sex with innocent girls, then murder them on camera.

It turns out the admiral’s daughter was part of that operation. When she developed moral qualms, she herself ended up in a starring role. Job number one for Caine is finding the tapes of the daughter’s death scene and destroying them. Job number two: taking down Thompson with extreme prejudice. Along the way Caine allies with a lady police detective and even has an evening of rumpy-bumpy with her. But his agenda is rather different from hers.

At the heart of Diamond Head are three virtuoso action set pieces that would have done JDM and Travis proud.

In the first, Caine’s attempt to inveigle himself into Thompson’s graces goes rather spectacularly sour. Moreover, it goes sour out on the waves, where he witnesses Thompson toss a young lady (who happens to be a spy for the Chinese godfather) to the sharks. Then it’s Caine’s turn to take a dip among the Great Whites and Tigers. As sharks are circling, Caine takes a bullet in the butt. But the gun he’s secreted down his leg is used to good effect on a shark and the hull of Thompson’s boat.

In set piece two, Caine—still recovering from his bullet wound—tracks Thompson down to a house in the sticks, which is surrounded by cops, including the lady detective. Thompson and his thugs manage to decimate the cops, at which point Caine attacks with a big Ruger Magnum revolver. He’s chased into the cane field, which is lit afire. Singed fore and aft, he just barely stays alive. Along the way he collects a number of the snuff films and leaves them for evidence. The rest go up in flames.

Not least, in the third Caine pursues the bad guy onto the high seas, right into the teeth of an oncoming hurricane. Thompson has the lady detective hostage and now Caine’s top priority becomes her rescue. Much sailor-y derring-do ensues. However improbable, this whole action sequence is riveting stuff.

In the end, the admiral’s reputation is saved, but severe losses are sustained by our hero.

I have no idea whether it was Knief or his publisher who pulled the plug. But it’s a shame that the series didn’t continue in some form or other. It had real potential.

Diamond Head and Knief’s other three Caine novels (Sand Dollars, Emerald Flash, and Silver Sword) are widely available in used paper editions. They’re also available as e-books from a mainstream publisher—signifying, probably, that the rights are not in the author’s hands.