Book Review: Five Decembers by James Kestrel 

Joe McGrady has been a beat cop in Hawaii since he left the Army five years ago. But it’s the end of 1941, and destruction is cruising quietly across the Pacific Ocean to change, irrevocably, everyone’s world. For Joe McGrady, the first change is a promotion to Honolulu Detective and the discovery of a dead body hanging upside-down from a meat hook on the land of a local cattle rancher. Luckily for McGrady, detection comes naturally. 

We can only hope that Joe McGrady will become a steady figure in the work of James Kestrel (a pseudonym for an author and lawyer who specializes in the Pacific). McGrady is one of the most likeable protagonists in years. He is quick to put clues together, awfully damn good with his gun, likeable and liked by the women whom he always treats with respect. He knows how to interview a suspect without going too far, but he isn’t afraid to let others do the dirty work. He is intelligent and good at his job. His techniques can be messy. He comes off as very human. 

Kestrel makes some surprising choices for Joe McGrady as he wends his way across a rather large chunk of the Pacific: Honolulu, Wake Island, Hong Kong, to name a few. The surprise is that Kestrel avoids most of the interesting moments of a world at war in the Pacific. One chapter ends very clearly stating that it was the night of December 6th, 1941, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Well, let me tell you, that was an easy page to turn so I could see what happens to McGrady during the early-Sunday bombing, the absolute surprise of the attack, the mayhem, and the Day of Infamy. Just imagine my surprise when McGrady immediately jumps a plane for Wake Island and then Hong Kong. McGrady will have to read about Pearl Harbor in the papers. We’ve seen enough of Pearl Harbor portrayed in the media that it is forgivable for Kestrel to decide to pass up this obvious opportunity. What I do not understand is that he keeps making the same decision. At one point, McGrady has found himself stuck in Japan during the bulk of the war (200 pages that appear to exist only to introduce a love interest and get McGrady speaking confident enough Japanese to solve the murder case that has been put on hold and waits for his return. Is there any mention of Nagasaki or Hiroshima? Once. In the paper again. Then McGrady finds himself aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, the site of the surrender of the Empire of Japan in 1944. McGrady gets on the ship two hours too late to see anything of interest. Back to the newspaper, I guess. 

Five Decembers is James Kestrel’s first novel to be included in the illustrious Hard Case Crime collection; it won the Edgar Award for Best Novel; and is racking up praise from the likes of Stephen King, James Patterson, and Denis Lehane. I’m not surprised that the novel made it into the Hard Case Crime collection – a collection that I have always highly recommended – but I am surprised Five Decembers won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. There are too many pages (around 150 or so) that felt like a trip to a different world in which murder doesn’t exist and detectives are not needed. The title Five Decembers is supposed to represent an overview of the entirety of the war, but three of those Decembers seem to have little bearing on the plot. 

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Greg Hammond

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