Book Review: Five Decembers by James Kestrel
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was so page-turning yet also filled with so much beautiful pathos. I had to stop reading on occasion and take breaks just to pull myself together emotionally before being able to plunge back into James Kestrel’s affecting narrative. Perhaps it is a failure of my own imagination, but I certainly never thought that a story this moving would come in the form of a noir novel set in and around World War II, as a Honolulu police detective named Joe McGrady doggedly pursues a murderer back and forth across the Pacific Ocean.
Being from the mainland, McGrady is fairly low in the HPD pecking order even after five years on the force, having attended college and enlisted in the Army before finding his feet as a cop. With the island in a state of perpetual tension given the saber-rattling maneuvers of the Japanese military just over the horizon, nerves inevitably boil over into crime, straining the HPD’s resources to its limits. McGrady isn’t even on duty when he’s called in to investigate the drunk ravings of a farmhand employed by an influential islander. The farmhand claims that there’s a dead body in his lodgings, so the higher-ups send the newest guy to go look into what may or may not be an actual crime.
McGrady does indeed find the dead body and more. On his second trip to secure the scene, he runs into a cleaner who’s ready to torch the place and exterminate any witnesses, including any interfering police detectives, with extreme prejudice:
McGrady took two steps backwards, lost his footing in a muddy wheel rut, and fell. He got off five shots on the way down.
The powder flashes gave him a stop motion film. Like something from the old penny arcades. The [assassin]’s arms flew out like wings. He spun, he twitched. The empty revolver was out of his hands and spinning backwards, toward the coupe.
Then McGrady was down in the mud and banyan roots, and the only sound was the ringing in his ears.
McGrady got up. The other man didn’t.
The trappings of a professional hit make more sense when the victim is identified as the nephew of the commander of the Pacific fleet stationed in Hawaii. McGrady is forced to partner up with fellow detective Fred Ball, who makes a habit of violence in extracting confessions. Ball’s brutality aside, the two men make a good team and soon discover that the killer has flown away from the island and across the Pacific to Hong Kong. With the combined weight of the police and the Navy behind him—and with the benefit of his experience having been stationed in China with the Army—McGrady is sent on his own to apprehend the suspect.
Before he goes, he kisses his sweetheart, graduate student Molly Radcliffe, goodbye, fully intending to surprise her with a romantic getaway when he returns after a few days, at most after a few weeks. History, however, has other plans:
He looked at his watch. He’d reset it for local time, and it took him a while to reorient himself. He’d traveled so far that to piece together his place in the world he had to work it out backwards. It was 1:30 p.m. in Hong Kong. Sunday, December 7, 1941. He did the math. Back home it was Saturday evening. The sixth of December. Molly would be in the library for the next hour and a half. Tomorrow would be her day off. She could sleep in. He liked that thought. It made a peaceful picture. A good way to start this day.
The day’s decline is gradual but violent, leading—as most readers will already know and anticipate—to the coordinated Japanese attack in both Hong Kong and across the ocean at Pearl Harbor. Trapped behind enemy lines and desperate to return to the woman he loves, McGrady must make hard choices in order to survive his increasingly perilous milieus. The same doggedness that propels his survival also compels him to keep tracking his quarry across distance and time, even as the whole world falls apart.
McGrady is a terrific protagonist, smart but willing to keep learning, tough but capable of letting experience guide him to becoming a better person. The losses he experiences are heart-rending, but no less so are the genuine hurts of the people he encounters as he closes in on a cold-blooded killer. The raw emotion of the book only serves to make the noir mystery at its core that much more compelling, as it deftly uses the reader’s expectations to devastating effect. Written in spare prose that conveys beauty and brutality in equal, eloquent measure, Five Decembers is an extraordinary novel of wartime crime and justice and loves lost and refound.