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On “Five Decembers” by James Kestrel


IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, you’re drawn to the dark for the grim settings, moral ambiguity, and a cast of characters with cynical worldviews forged from a life of hard knocks – damaged property, everyone. . For all of these reasons, black should be a perfect match for war. Where else are the higher stakes and the players so desperate, taken to extremes on matters that are life or death?

Hell, some of the most notable black page and stage pioneers themselves went through the crucible. Raymond Chandler survived the “War to End All Wars” in the trenches of France with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In another WWI campaign, Dashiell Hammett rushed to the battlefield to help the wounded while serving in the Motor Ambulance Corps. Barely a generation later during World War II, Graham Greene was immersed in a real international intrigue in Sierra Leone, working under the direction of Kim Philby, the man who would later become one of the most notorious Russian moles in the story. While war does not often intervene directly in their works, their trauma bleeds on the pages, the subtext stains their characters with the regrets and bruised values ​​of people who were forced to do what was necessary to survive. I’m not sure if James Kestrel, the author’s pseudonym, is a veteran, but he certainly put the pressure on by breaking his December 5 detective, Joe McGrady, in the middle of a war. If his protagonist wasn’t brooding enough before, he’s very tough now.

Although December 5 set in the Pacific Theater of WWII, its style is firmly rooted in the traditions of classic black, from the nostalgic hand-painted cover to pulp art, a hallmark of the Hard Case Crime Edition, to an appeal Literal phone call to action interrupting McGrady’s first drink after the quarter. We find him belly down in a seedy bar in Honolulu filled with rowdy sailors on leave ashore from Pearl Harbor. “Before tasting it, the bartender was back,” Kestrel writes. “Shaved head, swollen eyes. Straight razor scars on both cheeks. A face that made you want to hurry and drink. The bartender tells him there’s a call from the Honolulu Police Captain. McGrady, a rookie detective, is the only one in the department who doesn’t know how to be scarce before the long Thanksgiving vacation.

At the train station, McGrady learns that there has been a brutal murder on a dairy farm on the other side of Oahu. This is his first homicide, and he will work on it alone. The police captain clarifies that although McGrady has lived on the island for five years since his military release, he is still an outsider and has yet to gain trust. Political pressure mounts when one of the butchered victims is identified as the missing nephew of a Navy admiral. The lone murder suspect boarded a plane bound for Hong Kong with a false passport and apparently tortured and emptied a marine on Wake Island, a military outpost and a refueling point for flights to East Asia. The admiral does not accept a jurisdictional apology from the Honolulu Police Department. He demands that McGrady follow the trail wherever she leads, believing that the former Army soldier can cope, having seen fighting in China supporting the Marines during the Fujian Rebellion. Privately, the Admiral advises McGrady to proceed with “operational discretion,” an option that requires him to operate underground rather than announcing his investigative interests to foreign authorities.

On December 1, 1941, McGrady boarded a flight to Hong Kong via Midway, Wake Island and Manila, and he was overcome by a wave of apprehension. Over the past few days, his relationship with his girlfriend Molly has gone from a casual affair to something more. He promises that he will have a surprise in store for her when he returns before Christmas. But we do know there is a countdown – the Japanese fleet is stepping up its direction to launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in six days. McGrady sinks deep into what will soon become enemy territory.

It had started at a US military base and had passed through four others on the way. At each stop, there had been airfields lined with bombers. There had been torpedo boats and enormous earthworks around the coastal batteries. Everything had been built or moved, at great expense, to counter a threat. Everyone knew this storm was coming. Now the war was here. The only thing he could do was sit down and wait.

The title of the novel, December 5, is a clever reference that the story will turn from crime thriller to war epic after the Japanese launched their offensive across Asia. In Hong Kong, McGrady falls into the hands of the invading Japanese army and is swept away by the tide of war. The immensity of the global conflict allows Kestrel to escalate abruptly with its twists and turns that are not present in more conventional murder mysteries. I’ve often wondered, “Where could the plot go from here?” Believe me, it gets dark and twisted, and I can see why Hard Case Crime was thrilled to add this book to their Dark Collection.

Although this is the author’s first novel under the pseudonym Kestrel, Hard Case Crimes lists cover texts for his previous books by Stephen King, Lee Child, and James Patterson. This praise was clearly well deserved, as it displays the skills of a seasoned writer in its straightforward, concise prose, maintaining clarity throughout the fast-paced action scenes and complicated, quick-tempered plot points. While Kestrel’s novel takes a detour from classic black tropes, it is true to the narrative style, sowing the story with so many Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade-worthy observations that Humphrey Bogart was the narrator in my head: “A dog started barking in the house next door. Good ears, McGrady thought. He probably knew everything from start to finish. If only Detective Ball could handcuff him to a chair during an interrogation. Beat the story.

There are significant challenges inherent in immersing your reader in the past and orienting them with precision in relation to the surroundings. While relying on actual world events as a catalyst can make the story more real, those unfamiliar with the period may not fully appreciate the magnitude of the circumstances. Most American readers will share a basic knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Pacific campaign from history or pop culture lessons. Yet the experiences of the Japanese side of the war, where much of the intrigue takes place, will be decidedly foreign to most. Kestrel appears to have anticipated this by including brief detours in time and point of view to add historical context to the offensive campaigns that weigh on the plot. Not only are these vignettes effective in providing the appropriate feeling of hopelessness and fear of firebomb raids and death, they also support the all-black struggle the central characters endure with questions of futility and fatalism. He also avoids the pitfall of tampering with people on the Japanese side of the battle lines, including non-combatants and critics of Emperor Hirohito’s campaign in order to show us a humanity that is not often seen from this side of the war.

McGrady’s journey includes a heavy dose of angst due to the survival of atrocities of war that cannot be invisible and the need to make decisions that cannot be undone. “He had a handful of promises he didn’t know how to keep, and that was it. At least other men had scars. Something they could point to. They had participated in battles that had names. They could congregate in bars or throw soccer balls in a park and exchange stories. “

Regret and loss naturally become a recurring motif, sometimes plunging the protagonist into doubt and the thought of what could have been. “He had told Molly there was no what ifs. Of course there were. There would always be. There were so many things he would never know and so many ways he would never stop asking questions. What if. What if he had done it better? But despite the surroundings, Kestrel finds ways to slow the action down to create brief moments of lightness and serenity. These moments serve Kestrel well, and he avoids burying the reader under a landslide of trauma.

It’s never easy to successfully challenge the expectations of a beloved genre, but Kestrel has done just that, developing an adventure story far beyond the expectations of a dark murder mystery. Kestrel certainly has a bright future as a crime writer, and I look forward to further exploring his work and the Hard Case Crime catalog in the future.


Matt Ellis is a former military intelligence officer and diplomat turned writer. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critic Fellow 2021/2022, and his work has been featured or is to appear in Editors Weekly, the Los Angeles Book Review, Coachella review, Catalog of thoughts, Breast und Werden, and PseudoPod. Follow him on @ letswriting1 and www.letswriting.com.