Five Decembers by James Kestrel #BookReview

CriminOlly thinks: An epic novel that skilfully combines hardboiled mystery, war and love stories. 5/5

Title: Five Decembers | Author: James Kestrel | Publisher: Hard Case Crime | Pages: 432 | Publication date: 19th October 2021 | Source: Publisher | Content warnings: Yes | Tolerance warning: No


Five Decembers is a book that manages to feel both deeply personal and sprawlingly epic. It has the straightforward narrative of classic Hollywood movie and the dramatic scope to match, but also digs deep into the emotions and motive of its characters.

Told over four years (and five Decembers), it starts in Honolulu in the run up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Its protagonist is Hawaii PD detective Joe McGrady. Joe is sent to investigate a body found on a local farm, and quickly finds himself embroiled in a brutal, high profile case. The classic hardboiled detective story of the first third develops into something more complex as the novel progresses, weaving war story and romance into the police procedural.

Joe’s determination to do the right thing keeps driving the tale forward, even as the odds against him mount. He’s an incredibly satisfying character, written right on the edge of cliché but somehow convincing and always great to read. The fact that James Kestrel’s prose has the terse brute force of the best noirs helps a lot. The sentences are short and yet the words flow together perfectly. It’s the perfect style for the story Kestrel is telling. Plain and unadorned, but never lacking in subtlety. Kestrel manages to pack so much meaning into so few words that the story flies by but the emotions and the characters linger with the reader.

There is a beautiful moment in the final third of the book where Joe sees that some trash cans that were dented five years previously in the first third are still dented.

It was amazing what things were allowed to endure, while others evaporated.

So much has happened in the interim and that one simple line encourages the reader to take stock of them, pausing for a moment from the story to think about the real lives that were destroyed by the Second World War.

That’s the power of Five Decembers. It is such a page turning tale, but packed with raw truths about both love and conflict. It’s a brilliant piece of fiction and worth your time whether you’re a crime fan or not.


December 1941. America teeters on the brink of war, and in Honolulu, Hawaii, police detective Joe McGrady is assigned to investigate a homicide that will change his life forever. Because the trail of murder he uncovers will lead him across the Pacific, far from home and the woman he loves; and though the U.S. doesn’t know it yet, a Japanese fleet is already steaming toward Pearl Harbor


Content Warning: Racism, sexual violence

Tolerance Warning: All good

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