Five Decembers

Title: Five Decembers (2022)  
Author: James Kestrel 
Publisher: Hard Case Crime  

Book jacket: December 1941. America teeters on the brink of war, and in Honolulu, Hawaii, police detective Joe McGrady is assigned to investigate a homicide that will change his life forever. Because the trail of murder he uncovers will lead him across the Pacific, far from home and the woman he loves; and though the U.S. doesn't know it yet, a Japanese fleet is already steaming toward Pearl Harbor. 

Joe says: Five Decembers can be summed up in the singular tag: incredible. This one runs a little long, and the tone slightly uneven, but this remains a remarkable and full read.

Film Noir? War Noir? Hawaiian Noir? All of the above? Perhaps the best descriptor of the pulpy crime drama Five Decembers can be summed up in the tag: incredible. 

Want a slightly more critical accounting? How about heavy.

Five Decembers really does have it all. A crime procedural laced with mystery. A war drama that focuses its spotlight on a different stage in the Pacific theater: that of an American trapped in urban Japan. There is love, both lost and found. Shootouts and swords, too. Five Decembers truly is one enjoyable read. Yet its weight, especially coming from Hard Case Crime who is known for their agility and fleetness, was surprising and, yes, could have been reduced.

Five Decembers book review by Joe Kucharski

In a move worthy of filmmaker Shane Black, who notoriously sets his stories within the backdrop of Christmas, author James Kestrel uniquely situates the story of a grisly double homicide outside of Honolulu in November, 1941 as everyone is basting turkeys and prepping mistletoe. Also, mind you, while the Navy is jamming Pearl Harbor full with warships at every dock. Police Detective Joe McGrady, however, simply wants to sip salary-draining whisky and countdown the remaining days of the year. But murder waits for no man and McGrady is soon investigating the horrific deaths of two young adults: the nephew of an Admiral and his Japanese girlfriend. 

McGrady is paired with Detective Ball, a gruff cop who lets his calloused knuckles do the talking. The two scour Honolulu tracking down stolen cars, noxious pimps, and German spies alike a la L.A. Confidential’s Ed Exley and Bud White (a story also set at Christmas). 

Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, LA Confidential
Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

Kestrel’s style is pulp-novel sharp. His third-person narrative sets up the pins while McGrady’s thoughts follow through with a strike. This is a style that does not last. McGrady follows a lead out to Hong Kong. While there, war erupts. McGrady finds himself a prisoner of the Chinese and then the Japanese. The whisky-hip PI beat turns into a survivor’s tale of agony and woe. McGrady’s story remains compelling and Kestrel continues with his page-turning pressure but that L.A. Confidential groove grounds into the harrowing perils of Unbroken

As a war novel, Five Decembers focuses on a different season for McGrady. While the focus on McGrady turns to survival and recovery, there is impotence that he must deal with as the killer is potentially a thousand miles away back in Hawaii. Through it all, Kestrel keeps the drama tight and the plot solid.

Five Decembers runs a little long; the tone slightly uneven. Once McGrady and Ball’s dynamic begins to spark, the world ignites in abrupt explosions. In contrast, McGrady’s incarceration in Japan is silently doused. Both narratives receive proper attention and both have satisfying conclusions. You cannot help to think if McGrady’s war story would have been better suited in a stand alone sequel.

Five Decembers remains a remarkable and full read. Kestrel’s word placement is highly enjoyable and McGrady is a character that rises above the pulp standard. Mahalo, Hard Case Crime.

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