Some of my favorite crime novels juxtapose individual murders against the backdrop of wartime mass carnage. This is tough to pull off; it takes a skilled writer to keep the horror of such crimes vivid and stark when they’re surrounded by so much other death. In Five Decembers, James Kestrel, a pseudonym for the horror and suspense novelist Jonathan Moore, does this very, very well ... War, imprisonment, torture, romance, foreign language and culture are all explored with genuine feeling. The novel has an almost operatic symmetry, and Kestrel turns a beautiful phrase, too.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was so page-turning yet also filled with so much beautiful pathos. I had to stop reading on occasion and take breaks just to pull myself together emotionally before being able to plunge back into James Kestrel’s affecting narrative. Perhaps it is a failure of my own imagination, but I certainly never thought that a story this moving would come in the form of a noir novel set in and around World War II, as a Honolulu police detective named Joe McGrady doggedly pursues a murderer back and forth across the Pacific Ocean ... McGrady is a terrific protagonist, smart but willing to keep learning, tough but capable of letting experience guide him to becoming a better person. The losses he experiences are heart-rending, but no less so are the genuine hurts of the people he encounters as he closes in on a cold-blooded killer. The raw emotion of the book only serves to make the noir mystery at its core that much more compelling, as it deftly uses the reader’s expectations to devastating effect. Written in spare prose that conveys beauty and brutality in equal, eloquent measure, Five Decembers is an extraordinary novel of wartime crime and justice and loves lost and refound.
The immensity of the global conflict allows Kestrel steep escalation with his plot twists that are not present in more conventional murder mysteries. I was often left asking, 'Where could the plot possibly go from here?' Believe me, it gets bleak and twisted, and I can see why Hard Case Crime was excited to add this book to their noir collection ... he displays the skills of a seasoned writer in his direct and concise prose, maintaining clarity throughout fast-paced action scenes and complicated and quick-turning plot points. Though Kestrel’s novel takes a detour from the classic noir tropes, he is faithful to the narrative style ... There are significant challenges inherent in plunging your reader into the past and orienting them accurately to the environment. While relying on actual world events as a catalyst can make the story feel more real, those not familiar with the period may not fully appreciate the magnitude of the circumstances...Still, experiences on the Japanese side of the war, where much of the plot takes place, will be decidedly foreign to most. Kestrel seems to have anticipated this by including brief detours in time and point of view to add historical context about the offensive campaigns that loom over the plot. Not only are these vignettes effective in providing the appropriate sense of desperation and fear of firebomb raids and death, they also support the very noirish struggle the central characters suffer with questions of futility and fatalism. He also avoids the pitfall of othering the people on the Japanese side of the battle lines, by including noncombatants and critics of Emperor Hirohito’s campaign in order to show us a humanity that is not often seen on that side of the war ... It’s never easy to challenge the expectations of a beloved genre successfully, but Kestrel has done just that, growing an adventure story far beyond the expectations of a noir murder mystery. Kestrel certainly has a bright future as a crime writer, and I look forward to exploring more of his work and the Hard Case Crime catalog in the future.
... extraordinary ... In terms of language, plot and characters, this book reads like the great detective stories of that bygone era when detectives were tough males, wearing suits and ties, and almost always smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking hard liquor. Even though the time frame covers several years, the transitions are smooth, and the challenging aspects of its various locations are easily handled by Kestrel ... progresses through the years of World War II and the postwar era, there are quite a few interesting plot twists and turns. 2021 was a memorable reading year, and I can’t think of a better way to close it out than with this unique mystery, which will engage you from start to finish.
Another Pearl Harbor novel? Not hardly. Kestrel’s magnificent debut is a work of panoramic historical fiction, traversing in graphic detail not only Hawaii in the days before December 7, but also Hong Kong at the time of the Japanese invasion and Tokyo through the course of war. It’s also a transcendent love story and a gripping thriller ... A WWII novel in which the hero spends the entire war sequestered in a Tokyo house learning Japanese from a beautiful young woman? Yes, indeed, and it works superbly, with Kestrel expertly juggling a finely etched portrait of Tokyo at war with the developing love story and the still-unresolved murder case. All of these plot strands come together exquisitely in a truly breathtaking finale that is unbearably violent one moment and tearfully tender the next. Give this special novel the word of mouth it so richly deserves.