Five Decembers by James Kestrel

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Five Decembers by James Kestrel front cover

Hawaii, late November 1941, and the United States will soon be drawn in to World War II when Japan bombs the fleet at Pearl Harbour. Police detective Joe McGrady has just finished his shift and is winding down in a bar, contemplating a weekend with his new girl, Molly, but he gets called back to the station. The chief wants him to investigate a homicide – a man has been found in a farming hut in the Kaawa Valley.

At the scene, McGrady finds evidence of torture. The victim is naked, hanged and has been disembowelled, and McGrady heads back to find a phone to call it in. When he returns to the hut he finds a man trying to set it alight. In the ensuing fight, McGrady shoots the man dead and is lucky to escape with his life. Inspecting the scene again, he finds a second victim. This time it’s a young oriental woman, folded in to a cot, and she too has been sadistically murdered.

At autopsy, it is discovered the two victims were killed with a distinctive knife – a blade attached to brass knuckles – once used by the US Army. The identity of the Japanese girl remains a mystery, but the young man is identified as the nephew of Admiral Kimmel, Henry Willard, who had been missing for a few days. The admiral wants McGrady to stay on the case and keep him informed. Captain Beamer of the police doesn’t want him working single-handed, and partners him with Fred Ball, a detective with a reputation for asking questions with his fists.

Progress on the case stalls, a search of Willard’s apartment doesn’t yield much, and neither does his car. They still haven’t been able to identify the young woman by the time they are summoned back to see Kimmel. Wake Island, out in the Pacific, has a small naval base and a young marine there has been killed in a similar fashion to the two victims in Hawaii. A search of airline passenger lists shows a man, supposedly called John Smith, flew from Honolulu to Wake Island, and then on to Hong Kong. The dates fit, and McGrady is sent after him, stopping off at Wake Island first.

The first third of Five Decembers unravels much like a traditional mystery, albeit a superior one. Kestrel writes McGrady as an honest and conscientious detective, but as an outsider on the force, having been born off Hawaii. His thinking is clear and logical, and the deductive steps he takes seem sensible. His relationship with Molly is tenderly drawn, and when events conspire to keep them apart, his heartache is obvious. It transpires that Five Decembers is as much a love story as a mystery, if not more.

After leaving Wake Island and arriving in Honk Kong, McGrady is taken as a prisoner of war after the United States belatedly joins the Allied forces. He is saved from probable execution by a Japanese official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Takahashi Kansei, who believes the young woman murdered in Hawaii may have been his niece, Miyako. Kansei offers to keep McGrady safe in his home in Tokyo until the war is over so that he may return to Hawaii to solve her murder. There he stays for the next five years, learning Japanese from Kansei’s daughter, Sachi, and gradually falling in love with her.

Back in the States, McGrady solves Miyako’s murder and takes revenge on behalf of Kansei. As well-written and exciting as this is, it still isn’t the highlight of the novel. What resonates most is the way Sachi gradually replaces Molly in McGrady’s affections, a process that manages to be both heart-breaking and life-affirming at the same time. It’s a mature depiction of how complex love can be. The only time Kestrel’s writing doesn’t ring true is after McGrady returns to the States to continue his investigation. He uncovers a witness who is an escort, and that section veers into tart-with-a-heart cliché, a little.

Otherwise Five Decembers is an undoubted success, and I can’t understand why Jonathan Moore chose to publish under the pseudonym James Kestrel; it certainly can’t be because he was worried about the novel’s worth.

Also see Lou Berney’s November Road, or Live By Night by Dennis Lehane for its epic sweep.

Hard Case Crime

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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