Review: James Kestrel’s FIVE DECEMBERS

Five_DecembersWhen I saw Kestrel’s Five Decembers won the Edgar for best novel, I wanted to read it. On a whim I requested it on Edelweiss+ and I don’t know what gods are “for my unconquerable [reading] soul,” but Hard Case Crime was kind enough to grant my request. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to read such a great novel. It kept me glued to the page and surprised me by making narrative about-turns I never anticipated. It had depth and sweep and the blurb, quoted below, doesn’t encompass it, but it’s a start:

December 1941. America teeters on the brink of war, and in Honolulu, Hawaii, police detective Joe McGrady is assigned to investigate a homicide that will change his life forever. Because the trail of murder he uncovers will lead him across the Pacific, far from home and the woman he loves; and though the U.S. doesn’t know it yet, a Japanese fleet is already steaming toward Pearl Harbor.

To start, Five Decembers is symphonic in narrative structure, with hero Joe McGrady, like Odysseus, trying to make his way home; it has four distinct yet concentrically interconnected movements. Unlike Homer’s hero, however, Circe’s cave is a transformative interlude of peace and love where Penelope and Circe merge and become one. History precedes it, encroaches on it, and history ends it, but while it lasts, it turns Joe McGrady from hard-boiled detective to a man stripped of everything except his word and honour.

“He had no map. Getting lost didn’t concern him. He was lost before he started. Going home was the greater unknown.”

When the novel opens, in Honolulu, Joe is a police detective investigating the gruesome double-murder of an American admiral’s nephew and a young Japanese woman. I settled in, thought I was reading hard-boiled American crimefic. I love Dashiell Hammett (think he doesn’t get credit for being one of the great American novelists of the 20th century) and looked forward to the rest. Joe is a war vet, a dogged detective who doesn’t take to authority, especially when he has to suffer their foolishness and Capt. Beamer is a chain-smoking a-hole of the first order. But Joe’s tenacious investigating lands him in Beamer’s office and assigned a partner he doesn’t want and doesn’t like. But orders are orders, a crime cries for justice, bigger honchos are involved, and Joe follows the scent of the perpetrator to Hong Kong…where he is framed, arrested, and eventually set for execution as an American spy when the Japanese invade. This second movement, following the hard-boiled first part, is more Hitchcock North by Northwest than Sam Spade.

“Five Decembers. He had a house and an easy mortgage. He had a job and a city car and an Army surplus Jeep. He had thousands of dollars in his bank account. Every time he stepped outside, he felt like his pockets were empty. He felt no closer to home. He’d stayed alive for all these days, and he didn’t have a thing to show for it…He had a handful of promises he didn’t know how to keep, and that was it. At least other men have scars. Something they could point to. They’d been in battles that had names. They could gather in bars, or toss footballs around in a park, and trade stories…He needed to work, and get somewhere. If he didn’t do it fast, he was going to end up parked on a barstool until his funeral.”

Then begins a long, slow, meditative interlude, and without spoiling excessively, where Joe is saved by a Japanese diplomat and makes his way through the war’s four Decembers in a Japanese house and garden with a beautiful woman. The war ends, Joe returns to Honolulu, where he persists in investigating the crime he left off. The war has come and gone, millions of lives have been lost, the horror of the camps and the atomic bombs make for a landscape, despite American power and optimism, of existential emptiness. Concentric circles of deceit, betrayal, and evil meet in Joe’s discoveries, but like Sam Spade, like Odysseus, the siren call of “giving up” is never a question. The only answer for Joe is to finish what he started.

In a fourth movement, Joe has his own penance to enact and his own Penelope to win. I have tried hard not to spoil for anyone who wishes to read the novel (and you should, it’s wonderful), but my poor efforts did not encompass its sweep, its thematic depth, its brilliant characterization, its matter-of-fact prose that says so much with so little, or its perfectly paced, perfectly structured movements to a magnificent dénouement, which to any romance reader, may be one of the most heart-wrenching “grovels” you’ll ever read.

James Kestrel’s Five Decembers was published by Hard Case Crime and released in October of 2021. I received a copy from Hard Case Crime, via Edelweiss+, and this does not impede the free expression of my opinion.     

20 thoughts on “Review: James Kestrel’s FIVE DECEMBERS

    1. What??? Get a shovel, dig!! It’s really great, but I do have to give you a CW for graphic violence. I was okay with it, but the opening is pretty graphic. It’s not gratuitous, however.


      1. I’m usually okay with the violence, but it is good to be warned in advance.
        I first heard of it way back in 2021 when a friend reviewed it and gave it 5 stars. That’s when it went on the TBR/get from library list. I wasn’t in the right mood when it was finally available, then it sank into the depths…
        I now have it on hold at two different libraries–one of them should come through for me this week or next.


        1. I’m okay too, unless it’s, like love scenes in a romance novel, one indeed fast upon following another. But this contains really only two scenes I can think of with distaste and this is a very looong novel.

          I hope you get your hold soon, would love to hear what you think of it!!


  1. This is a very convincing review: the book sounds really gripping. Hard boiled is not my favorite type of crime fiction, but I’m tempted.


    1. That’s the interesting “genre” thing about it: it starts “hard-boiled” and ends up in so many different places. I think, if you can get past the first scene, you’d find this one interesting to think about in so many ways. Would love to hear your take on it.

      Now that it’s “settled” a bit, I may be considering: is it “bloated”? Is it still as good as my first response to it? It’s definitely one I’ll be thinking about at the year-end post.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh wow, thank you for this review. I’ve never heard of the book and it sounds great. I also LOVE that 1940’s pulp detective style cover. I am requesting it from the library right now.


    1. Woo hoo! I hope you enjoy it. That’s it, you nailed it, it’s “pulpy”, isn’t it. For a most unpulpy novel, though it has elements of that. I liked it A LOT!


  3. I finished this last night. and now I have a major ‘good book hangover’. I thought it was fabulous. Thank you so much for reviewing it, I’m glad I didn’t miss this one.
    The melancholy in the third section was almost a character in itself. And the ending was so wonderful.
    I can understand why it won the Edgar–so readable (I had to force myself to put it down), and with so much depth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay, I’m so glad it worked for you and you enjoyed it as much as you did. A “good book” hangover is the only great hangover. I read it as incessantly as I could over the work week and then did a good devouring over the weekend. Yes, the narrative “movements”, as I went on and on about in my review, were like sea-waves, sometimes crashing as in the opening, or like the third, slow and meditative. Ending was amazing, especially to a romance reader. Talk about an agon…

      So, maybe our book of the year, time will tell…

      (Another commenter wrote positively about this year’s Edgar winner, so I’d be keen to read that one too.)


      1. One thing that made this book a ‘keeper’ for me was the look at Oahu at that time. My family moved to Hawaii in 1957 and there were still a lot of traces of pre-WWII Honolulu to be found. It was interesting to ride around with Joe and think ‘Oh yeah, the author got that right!’
        On a more somber note–yes, I knew, in a vague way, about the brothels in Chinatown and the set up with the military. I had no idea it was so incredibly brutal for the women. That very minor part of the story bothered me much more than any of the physical violence. Dorothy broke my heart.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, that is super-cool about Hawaii. I think I’ve blocked the Dorothy part somewhat, but it was heart-breaking is the word. Let’s hope Kestrel writes another book in this vein. My understanding is his other books have been designated as “horror”?


            1. Hmm, described more as classic noir than horror, that particular title. He’s a fine fine writer, but I never read horror. Noir and thrillers, with a writer like this, I’d definitely like to read more.


  4. Ok, you convinced me. I’ve got a thing for crime fiction and hard-boiled detectives that are barely housebroken. I also really dig Hard Case Crime (since they launched in the early 2000s it’s been a mix of old school reprints, new releases and they’ve since branched out to graphic novels). But this book? I can’t remember know why I skipped over it? I suspect it was the WWII ties? Being a little burnt out on that era from historical fiction. But in the pile it goes now.


    1. Yay!!! Hopefully, it’ll be a hit, like “Say Nothing”…

      Me too, I have that “thing” too. I like this publisher too. It’s an interesting perspective on WWII b/c the historical era is present and yet, it’s also such an original “take” on it and not the usual European arena either. Definitely worth reading, but be warned it’ll keep you up at night. Weekend reading recommended.


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