by James Kestrel
Published by: Hard Case Crime
They huddled in front of Kondo’s car. Six patrol cops, two men from the coroner’s office, and McGrady. He didn’t know anyone but the old sergeant, and that was fine with him. They wouldn’t start second-guessing his experience. Which was essentially zero, for a thing like this.
Hard Case Crime’s latest stands as a wall-to-wall knockout. Five Decembers by James Kestrel is a tried-and-true Hard Case Crime experience and nothing like they have ever published before.
Spanning the whole of World War II, Five Decembers pulls off the impossible. Multiple times. Operating mainly as a noir, only to shift and dart through turns as a historical drama, devastating love stories, and spy yarns. Sometimes even within the span of a single chapter. Every turn is supported by punchy, endlessly readable language and deeply researched period details.
Firstly opening as a tense period crime drama, author James Kestrel draws readers in deeply to this seemingly gorgeous Hawaiian noir. Detective Joe McGrady is a harried, but honest police detective living in Honolulu. He works his beat and keeps his head down and plans for a life away from The Life with his best gal one day, once his pension is available to him. But when his Benzedrine-addicted police captain assigns him to investigate a murder discovered on one of the island’s palatial citrus plantations, his entire life is turned on end. This is complicated further by the rapidly approaching Second World War and the complex web of political intrigue erected in its wake.
In the first place, Five Decembers is a truly cracking detective story. The initial setup of the novel’s inciting incident is instantly gripping and displays early Kestrel’s deep, well-deployed period details in the investigation and 40’s police methodology.
In addition, Kestrel’s characterization of McGrady and his co-stars provide the novel wonderful color. All of the characters, and their motivations, are poetically rendered onto the page through Kestrel’s crunchy, oddly endearing prose, filtered then further by the experience and temperament of McGrady, who consistently handles well the weight of being the lead character through a full-tilt epic.
Because when I say that Five Decembers is epic, I genuinely do mean it. Our story begins in 1941, and by the time you get to the end, years and years and years have passed – sometimes also within the span of single chapters. Kestrel and his story never once allow the reader to falter, using McGrady as the “true north” of the narrative by tracking the time through our ever-present not-so-white knight.
When I started Five Decembers, I was struck and fascinated by the rawness of the case, and how police detectives operated back in this day and age and the constantly fascinating bits of history about a pre-Pearl Harbor Hawaii Kestrel peppers into the opening chapters. But as I continued, the novel never stopped surprising me. Either from its sudden brutality, the all-too-real horrors of history, or its shockingly sweet turns of phrase it employs in the quiet scenes. It all culminates in a truly captivating read from start to finish.
Five Decembers single-handedly earns being called an “epic” without sacrificing the lurid charms and hard-knuckled momentums that make Hard Case Crime books a unique modern pulp experience. Making it both a standout and outlier of the imprint. One that will end up being impossible to put down, trust me.