Five Decembers


James Kestrel


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

June 30, 2022

picked up Five Decembers because it received a lot of praise, including winning the prize for best novel of 2022 by the Edgar Awards. The praise is merited, Five Decembers is a hard book to put down. It has excellent tough-talking characters with strong internal codes of justice and morality, the depiction of WWII era locations seems authentic, and the thrills of the dangerous pursuit are believable and intriguing.

Five Decembers is the story of Joe McGrady, a detective in the Honolulu Police Department. It is November 26, 1941. McGrady is told to investigate a house out at Kahana Bay - the working man there is reporting some disturbing news he discovered in the shed. McGrady drives to the out-building and finds a young man who has been brutally tortured and slaughtered. McGrady drives back to the main house and picks up the hired man, but he is too drunk to speak. When McGrady returns to the crime scene, he is immediately confronted by a gun-wielding assailant. A quick, vicious battle ensues, and the assailant is plugged in his head and chest by McGrady. Further investigation of the shed reveals that there was also a young Japanese woman who was tortured and viciously murdered. Three dead bodies, a horrific crime scene - and the novel is just getting started.

It turns out that the dead young man is the nephew of Admiral Kimmel, in charge of the American fleet. The case is elevated to top priority, with no resources spared. Word comes in of a murdered airforce man on Wake Island - a man killed by a knife just like the one used to torture the two young people in the Hawaiian shed. McGrady soon finds himself flying across the Pacific in pursuit of clues.

It is December 5th, 1941.

The novel is focused on Joe McGrady. He is a tough guy, willing to break a few rules in order to pursue the villains. But he also has a sense of honor and righteousness, longing to bring to justice the heinous killer. McGrady has a sweet girlfriend, Molly, that he is totally in love with. He plans to surprise her with a nice Christmas present (Fate has other ideas). McGrady is also smart and resourceful, taking some risks to get more information on his case. Because McGrady is so well portrayed, a sympathetic character in a difficult situation, the reader roots for him and keeps turning the pages.

Although the hard cover edition I read has 425 pages, this is a fast read. The story never lags. McDonald's pursuit of the dangerous "John Smith" spans five years (which is why the book title is Five Decembers) and the pacing of the story never flags.

Five Decembers was published by Hard Case Crime, a publishing house dedicated to issuing books of hardboiled noir. Some of these books are reissues of classic novels from decades ago, some of the publications are new novels, such as Five Decembers. Some of the other works are also Edgar Award winners. I am impressed enough by this novel to consider looking up more books printed by them. (Five Decembers is apparently the seventh novel that Kestrel has written, but I can find no information on his previous books. Perhaps they were never released?)