In James Kestrel's ace crime novel "Five Decembers," Honolulu cop Joe McGrady is just doing his job when he trails a suspect to Hong Kong. Unfortunately, he's investigating a double murder committed at Thanksgiving 1941 and he's on the case in China when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7.
McGrady hits an incredible streak of bad luck when he finds himself stranded and a prisoner of war after the Japanese invade and take over Hong Kong immediately after their attack on Hawaii. He's transferred to Japan, makes an escape, and hides out with a Japanese government official and his daughter for the duration of the war.
The detective never gives up on getting justice for the murder victims, a sailor who's the nephew of a prominent American admiral and a young Japanese woman who's at first difficult to identify. Throughout the sweep of historical events, McGrady never forgets his mission and returns to Hawaii after the war to solve the crime.
"Five Decembers" (on sale Oct. 26, 2021) is the debut novel from Kestrel, a new pen name for an author who's previously published some very good crime novels. His publishers at Hard Case Crime are releasing the book in hardcover, making the book a huge priority from a company known for its paperback originals.
Kestrel excels at portraying both the physical landscape and local politics in Hawaii in the days leading up to the war. Honolulu was a bit of a cultural backwater, even while home to a critical Navy installation, and the local police politics are tough on a determined cop like McGrady.
The book also excels at portraying the wartime experiences of a civilian trapped behind enemy lines. McGrady doesn't know exactly what's going on at home while he's living in isolation, learning to speak Japanese from his hosts while waiting on the conflict to end. His hosts have an important connection to the crime in Hawaii, which explains the risk they take in harboring the detective.
"Five Decembers" is the kind of book that would have lost its scope and detail when adapted into a movie back in the old days. Fortunately, we now have Netflix, Amazon and HBO Max to potentially make the novel into a 10-episode series if they're willing to commit to what would be an epic budget.
Fortunately, readers don't have to wait for a television version. "Five Decembers" manages to be both a great World War II novel and an outstanding old-school crime novel at the same time.
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