James Kestrel’s The Five Decembers is a fascinating noir detective story intersecting with the war story. From a proven writer and featuring a great assortment of mystery and action, it represents an excellent new work in the historical crime genre.
Joe McGrady is a police detective working in Honolulu who gets caught up in the particularly gruesome deaths of a young woman and a man. The latter is white, the former is Japanese, and both were clearly murdered. He begins investigating the case, supported by the brass even when they don’t care for him. Joe heads to Hong Kong to follow a lead, leaving friends and a girlfriend behind. Unfortunately for him, it is late in the year 1941, and he will quickly find himself a prisoner of war.
Five Decembers is a fascinating piece looking at a man who finds his quest for justice jerked and twisted, leaving him in a long series of unexpected situations and facing increasingly more ambiguity. It is also a fascinating throwback to classic pulpy hardboiled action, a story with sex and violence that somehow manages to excite and surprise. It differs from many wartime works of pulp not only due to Kestrel’s talents with prose, but also due to his subversion of expectations. While there are villainous and antagonist individuals from Japan, particularly in the initial Hong Kong scenes, there are also those who are heroic and others who simply wish to live their lives.
The cover is a nice retro piece by Claudia Caranfa, which might be seen to imply the use of Yellow Peril and Dragon Lady tropes, these have little to nothing to do with the book, save perhaps in subversion. The scene is an accurate depiction of an event in the book, more or less, down to a Japanese woman in bed.
This is Sachi, another major character. Born in California to Japanese parents, Sachi is a pacifist, a cousin to the woman found dead in Honolulu, and capable of speaking four languages. Indeed, teaching someone English and serving to raise fascinating moral questions is a large part of her story, and works quite well.
About the only group this book gives little in the way of nuance to are Nazis, whether they be the classic German variety, members of the German American Bund, or other varieties. There is nothing wrong with this, as in a pulp story or not Nazis were and are horrible and adherent to a horrifying ideology.
After the novel proper there is a short piece wherein Kestrel takes time to write and explain the logic behind this story and a few of it’s influences. This is an appreciated addendum.
James Kestrel’s Five Decembers is a fascinating example of the historical mystery, and a surprisingly quality example of avoiding the mistakes that can often fall into a novel set during a war of the last century. It also combines the war novel and detective novel extremely well, leaving us appropriately surprised and horrified at appropriate moments. Easy to recommend to fans of old school noir and hardboiled mystery.
(Hard Case Crime, 2021)