Five Decembers by James Kestrel won the 2022 Edgar Award for best novel. It is a solid murder mystery that involves a classic noir detective story paired with international intrigue and the Pacific Theater in WWII. Main character Joe McGrady is army brat who went to college and later served in the army before settling in Hawaii and becoming a detective in the Honolulu Police Department. His boss, Capt. Beamer, is a chain-smoking benzedrine-inhaling hard nose who hates Joe and makes it clear that he is just waiting to see this “outsider” fail. Fred Ball is a fellow detective who interrogates suspects with his fists and doesn’t seem thrilled at being paired with McGrady (it’s mutual) but he is also a pretty good investigator and will come to respect McGrady’s instincts. Molly is Joe’s girlfriend who is going to college and working on advanced degree. Joe can get through the worst day just thinking about Molly, but crime and world war will upend everyone’s plans.
The novel opens on the evening before Thanksgiving in 1941. On a remote farm in the Hawaiian hills, a day laborer finds the horrifically mutilated body of a man hanging from the rafters of a shed, abattoir style. The owner of the farm calls his friend Capt. Beamer, who finds himself forced to call on McGrady as the only detective available. It doesn’t take long for this horrific murder to turn into something worse: when McGrady returns to the murder scene at night, he discovers a man in the act of trying to destroy the crime scene. McGrady kills him in a shootout and then discovers that there were actually two bodies in the barn: a young Caucasian man and a young Japanese woman. The young man was the nephew of Admiral Kimmel of the US Navy, who has taken great interest in this case and asks McGrady to report to him on his investigations. Within days, a similar murder of a US Marine occurs on Wake Island. Kimmel asks McGrady to follow the trail — in an unofficial capacity, of course — which will take him from Wake Island, to Guam and to Hong Kong. Along the way, McGrady interviews hotel workers, bartenders, airline employee, etc. to get leads, and he discovers that a man going by John Smith is his most likely suspect. John Smith is a huge man, a head taller than most men; he has an arm injury; and he was last seen heading for Hong Kong. Thus, on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack, McGrady finds himself in British controlled Hong Kong, and he will witness it fall to the Japanese from a jail cell after being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. John Smith has powerful friends.
When the Japanese take control of Hong King, McGrady winds up on a ship of prisoners bound for Tokyo, but he also finds an unexpected ally who has very personal reasons for wanting to help McGrady find Smith. This section of the novel involves interesting explanations of international intrigue and espionage, as well as life in Japan during war and the firebombing of Tokyo. There is nothing McGrady can do to solve the murders while the war is on, but once it ends, he heads back home to a world that has changed in some dramatic ways. The case has gone cold and no one seems interested in picking it up again, but that won’t stop Joe McGrady.
This novel really works on all levels. Kestrel gets the war and history right. He shows the race issues surrounding Asians and Americans on the eve of war and after, as well as women’s roles and rights, and the activities of war mongers and diplomats. His descriptions of cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo are detailed and the description of the firebombing of Tokyo is harrowing. One of the themes running through the story is about the things one has to do to save oneself and to serve the greater good, including taking risks and engaging in acts of violence.
Kestrel also gets the noir right. Five Decembers has prostitutes with hearts of gold, crooked cops, informants who see all kinds of things but you have to know how to ask. McGrady is the hardened but decent cop, an outsider, knows how to kill a man and has done so but doesn’t relish it. He loves a good woman but things get complicated. Lots of women are attracted to him but he treats them right. The cover of this novel is vintage noir, with a beautiful woman barely covered by a sheet while at the window a fine physical specimen of a man stands with his back to us as he watches bombers in flight and the skies turning red.
Last but not least, this mystery is just really good. Five Decembers has a great original plot, a very interesting whodunnit and why, that uses both history and noir elements to great effect.