Pukalani resident Toby Neal has much to smile about these days. She writes mystery-crime novels and has just released "Broken Ferns," the fourth book in her highly praised Lei Crime Series. Her previous books, "Blood Orchid," "Black Jasmine" and "Torch Ginger," have been reviewed as "un-putdownable."
Raised on Kaua'i, Neal has made Maui her home after living elsewhere to pursue her education. Initially majoring in journalism, she went on to pursue mental health as a career.
When she is not writing, she works as a mental health therapist with Maui Center for Child Development and the Maui Counseling Group.
Toby Neal’s books in her Lei Crime Series, “Blood Orchid” “Black Jasmine” and “Torch Ginger,” have all been reviewed as “unputdownable.” As she continues to write the series, you can expect brilliant detective work along with intriguing story twists and turns you don’t see coming.
"My stories have been deeply inspired by my psychology education," Neal said.
In the beginning, that caused a bit of upheaval between her personal and professional life. However, she soon resolved the issues of being both a therapist and a writer of suspense mysteries.
Neal skillfully weaves her psychological insight into her books, placing the stories in beautiful tropical settings.
Being able to entwine two careers successfully is "a dream come true," she said.
Her first novel, "Blood Orchids," is a fast-paced crime mystery set in the Hawai'i Island town of Hilo. She credits her counseling background with adding depth to her characters, from the villains to Detective Lei Texeira, the courageous and vulnerable female heroine in the Lei Crime Series.
Lei, a smart, complicated policewoman, had been abused as a child. Neal developed her into an appealing main character with more to learn, more cases to solve and more islands to explore.
"I was thrilled when I realized I'd found a character as well as plots I could write about forever," she said.
"Black Jasmine," Neal's second novel, which is set on the island of Maui, has Detective Texeira tracking organized crime in her quest for justice. The third novel, "Torch Ginger," takes place on Kaua'i, where transients are disappearing in paradise, revealing the biggest mystery case the sleepy island has ever known.
"The books hook you," according to one enthusiastic reader of the series. "If you want to see someone damaged become a hero, if you love justice, enjoy solving mysteries and puzzles, and you root for a good love story, you will adore Neal's books."
In the midst of the anticipated February release of "Broken Ferns," Neal is already working on her fifth book in the series.
"Four books in and I haven't lost interest in the seedy underbelly of humanity and the dual faces of Hawai'i, paradise and purgatory," she said.
"My fascination with fighting crime really appears unseemly," said Neal, who regularly attends church. What she discovered is she has a side that loves to root for the underdog, celebrates justice and wishes she could be more active than just wiping the tears of victims.
"It's that side that revels in Lei's butt-kicking of psychologically sick perpetrators, and so in a way, it does all make sense," she said.
Neal attributes much of her success to her husband, artist Mike Neal, who created the cover photos for the books, and who, she acknowledges, "puts up with my mood swings, obsessions and wild flights of ideas."
Mike, the owner of Neal's Studios, is an accomplished photographer and woodworker as well as a strong supporter, friend and docent volunteer of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project.
"He is a true creative partner and I love how our projects spark each other," said Toby.
On Saturday, Feb. 9, at Maui Open Studios at the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center in Makawao, the Neals will share their creativity with the community. Mike will exhibit his woodwork and photography highlighting the natural beauty found here on Maui, and Toby will sign copies of her newly released "Broken Ferns."
"Our two children are another reason I am smiling a lot these days," said Toby. Daughter Tawny, a cell biologist, is currently working as head researcher on a project at the Stanford University Calos Laboratory, seeking a cure for muscular dystrophy.
Their son, Caleb, a technology professional, moved to California last year to work in the theater and film industry.
"He's been receiving much praise over his custom designs for Cosplay costuming and gaming pieces," she said.
Along with being a wife, mother, successful writer and therapist, Toby and her sister, Bonny, co-founded a nonprofit program called Keiki Cupboard.
"Our goal is to have a cupboard at every Maui school containing necessary supplies for children who cannot afford them," Neal said.
Last but not least on Neal's happiness list are her two dogs, Nalu and Liko.
"Dogs feature largely in my fiction," she said. "They're wonderful personalities that illuminate aspects of our humanity in situations that show character development and the courage of conviction."
In fact, Nalu, Neal's feisty Chihuahua terrier is the model for Keiki, the Rottweiler in the Lei books!
The book series is available on both Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. For more information, visit www.tobyneal.net, nealstudios.net or call (808) 344-0625.