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Five Decembers by James Kestrel – Review

November 5, 2021

Hawaii, December 1941.

The United States is slowly being drawn into the war in Europe. However, Honolulu continues at the slow pace of island life, that is, until a murder bears ominous signals of the carnage ahead. When a corpse is discovered on farmland, Detective Joe McGrady is called in to investigate. The case gets politically sensitive fast: the victim is the nephew of Admiral Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific fleet. McGrady follows a lead that will take him to Hong Kong. Before he departs, he says goodbye to his sweetheart Molly Radcliffe, determined to surprise her upon his return, which he hopes will only be in a few days. McGrady is unaware, of course, that on December 7th the Japanese will launch a devastating attack on Pearl Harbour in what President Roosevelt described as ‘a date which will live in infamy’. McGrady finds himself stranded in Hong Kong while the British forces, weak and depleted from their war with Nazi Germany, are on the brink of collapse to the advancing Imperial Japanese Army which is rapidly approaching the zenith of its power. McGrady is about to become a prisoner of war, but this is more a story about people who are hostages of fate. What makes McGrady such a strong character is despite being dragged from Hawaii to Hong Kong, to Japan, is his dogged, relentless determination to catch a killer despite the humanitarian catastrophe occurring all around him, which the author describes in harrowing detail but also in a fashion that evokes touching empathy. Kestrel doesn’t need to resort to violence to provide startling imagery. In one scene McGrady finds the murder victim’s car abandoned and about to be washed into the sea with the tide:

Henry Kimmel Willard’s maroon Ford was still hanging onto a rock. It looked like a light push would send it over. The water was dark blue. The same colour as the open ocean. When the car finally slipped off the rock and sank, it would be gone for good.

McGrady and his partner examine the car for evidence with only minutes to spare before it is washed away. This is a detective the reader roots for because he will stop at nothing to get the job done.

There are endless war stories about the combatants in the armies, navies and air forces of the world. Five Decembers tells the story of people behind the scenes; venal privateers, ideological zealots unaware that the world is changing irrespective of their rules, exhausted colonial administrators and jaded civil servants desperately trying to keep the system afloat. And at the heart of it all, a police detective determined to find justice for a murder victim when the war is killing people by the millions. McGrady holds firm to that torch of justice as fate drags him across the Pacific and back, leading to the novel’s unforgettable climax.

As James Ellroy might say, “Don’t pay the rent. Buy this book!”

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