By James Kestrel
Hard Case Crime
“Five Decembers” is one of the greatest books we have ever read. It is destined to be a classic of American fiction for so, so many reasons.
It is late Nov. in Honolulu, 1941. Tensions between the U.S. and Japan are reaching a crescendo and the ghosts of the war are once again manifesting themselves. World War I veteran, Detective Joe McGrady is called to investigate the brutal murder of a young couple; their bodies having been discovered in a rickety shack up in the hills of a dairy farm. The boy was American, the girl Japanese and their remains the grisly signature of a sadistic monster. No sooner than McGrady begin his investigation when he learns the male victim was the nephew of an Admiral in command of the island’s pacific fleet. Via this connection, the evidence suggests the killer was in fact a trained spy and had since fled Hawaii for Hong Kong.
At the Admiral’s request, McGrady agrees to take up the chase and is soon packed and saying farewell to Molly, a young college student he’d recently become involved with. His hope is to catch the killer, turn him over to the British authorities and then be home in only a few weeks. McGrady fails to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor the following week, Dec.7th that finds him wrongly incarcerated in a Hong Kong jail cell. Unable to convince the Brits of his identity and purpose, he helplessly witnesses the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and is subsequently captured as a prisoner of war and brought to Japan.
What happens next to McGrady is truly mesmerizing, as Kestrel paints a setting few Americans have ever seen, let alone imagined; Japan during the war years. He masterfully depicts characters from all walks of life attempting to cope with the living nightmare that had seemingly swallowed all reality. The author captures people insightfully, his characters brokenly human regardless of race and all of them are somehow significant to the entire story of McGrady’s personal odyssey. That he survives to return back to Honolulu is a heart-wrenching narrative and only the precursor for the book’s final third in which McGrady, like a dog with a bone, picks up his old case and once again begins his hunt for a killer who had eluded all those years earlier.
“Five Decembers” is a gripping, taught, magnificent saga, unlike anything we’ve ever read in our life. No understatement there. It is a work of power, brilliant plotting, heart, and grace showing all the nobility of mankind as well as the depths of evil into which it can sink. Loves won and lost, enemies and allies encountered, and a finale that will have you transfixed by its sheer, overwhelming beauty. What else can I say except, thank you, James Kestrel, for writing this book.