FIVE DECEMBERS by James Kestrel

Five Decembers
(Hard Case Crime Series #150)
By James Kestrel
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9781789096118
— Hardcover — 432 pp.


This is perhaps the best Hard Case Crime novel I’ve yet read, and it is among the best novels in general that I’ve read in the past year. I don’t seem to be alone in this assessment, as the Mystery Writers of America just announced Five Decembers as the winner of the 2022 Edgar Award for best novel a few days ago. James Kestrel is a pseudonym for Jonathan Moore, whose previous novels are now going onto my to-read list with that priority of engaged excitement. Here’s why you might enjoy this novel as well, even if you are not a regular reader of the Hard Case Crime imprint.

Five Decembers opens with a set-up of plot and atmosphere that smolders with a familiar intensity of pulpish noir suspense. Former Army officer Joe McGrady now works as a Honolulu city police detective, perceptive and dedicated, though resented and unappreciated by many of his colleagues, particularly his boss. But, as Europe and the rest of the world beyond begin to churn into global conflict, he lives content on the island with his job and a woman he loves.

The trajectory of Joe’s life change when he is assigned a gruesome double homicide that ends up having links to the family of the Admiral who heads the Naval base at Pearl Harbor, and to Japan. After a shootout near the scene of the murder with one of the killers, McGrady ends up on the trail of a professional killer across the Pacific, eventually reaching British Hong Kong. The chaos of World War II and an attack by Japan on Hong Kong make tracking a dangerous killer the least of McGrady’s worries, as his investigation and pursuit quickly turn into becoming a prisoner of war.

The adventure of Five Decembers stretches across five years (hence the title), in an epic story that combines elements of crime fiction, historical war drama, romance, and conventional literary explorations of cross-cultural contact. Clandestinely freed from execution within a Japanese prisoner camp by one of his captors, Joe McGrady must spend most of the war in hiding within a Japanese home. The war’s end finally gives him the freedom to leave and resume the hunt for the killer that began his journey. But how have the secluded years living with a Japanese family changed him, and what is left for him to return to?

Five Decembers starts as hard boiled crime, and eventually returns to it. But the majority of it serves as something much more profound and heartbreaking, yet just as entertaining, just as fluid with dialogue that pops and grittiness that touches the soul. Even in the moments of the novel without ‘crime’ and the mystery plot, the tone of the novel stays consistent with the genre.

The hard boiled or film noir style is largely defined by the cynicism in its characters, brought on by cycles of violence and despair. Bright rays of hope that appear, and dreams of a happy future, become clouded over by gruesome reality. War does this as well, as it overturns the lives of ordinary people, people who may even be the enemy, but who are at their heart still good. Systems destroy even the good, particularly the good.

McGrady finds himself prisoner to a life he never intended, could not have chosen. Yet somehow it becomes a life of beauty and tranquil peace. Of happiness. Just as the outbreak of war causes chaos and disruption, so too does the end of these conflicts, as others coming into power and enemies are not just defeated, but also punished. The end of war is not a new peace. It’s a return to the same cycles of violence, with different players and stages. McGrady’s life is again disrupted and he’s forced to again find his place in the world.

Five Decembers is a cinematic novel, one that I could easily seen adapted into a movie that was on one hand action/suspense, but also art house, using the familiarity and entertainment of genre conventions to probe the human condition in one common man across a swath of time. It’s a complex novel that I would enjoy reading again, and I believe that a lot of people across reading interests would find rewarding.


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