Five Decembers–Far-reaching Hard Case Crime story blends war romance and Hawaii detective story

Five Decembers cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Every once in a while Hard Case Crime includes a novel that seems to come out of nowhere, a book that is neither hard-fisted crime noir, a lost book of a famous crime author of the past, or the work of a new writer.  Soho Sins (reviewed here at borg) is an example.  The next is Five Decembers, coming to bookstores next week from the imprint and available for pre-order now here at Amazon.  Written by James Kestrel (a pseudonym for Jonathan Moore), the novel is interesting for all the components the author ties together.  It’s ultimately a strange 1940s era romance, like the romance thread of a Herman Wouk novel (The Winds of War, War and Remembrance).  For the first 200 pages the reader thinks he/she is reading a detective story.  As the story gets revved up, the author shifts gears and settles in on a historical fiction tale, switching gears again into a vengeance story.  It feels like an assemblage of ideas, an anthology of war stories rolled into one, ultimately pinning it all on one protagonist and pushing it all forward in an exhausting journey of a Hawaii detective trying to find a particularly bloody killer, sucked into the crime so much that attention to the facts of the crime gets him through the entirety of World War II.

At 432 pages, it’s the genres that come and go in fits and starts.  Each start is a good start to an intriguing path for the character that ultimately shifts into something else.  Why these choices?  Bless his editor for cutting the 60,000 words the author references in his afterword.  The first 200 pages could have been halved as well, since the nature of the crime is more of a tangent that feels out of place for the story’s hero, an ex-soldier named McGrady who is a detective for the Honolulu Police Department in the days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  McGrady has just begun dating a woman in town–not much more than a one-night stand–but he’s pulled away to Hong Kong and can’t stop thinking about her for the entire novel as he gets jailed and becomes prisoner in Tokyo for the length of the war–he pines for her like he’s been married for years, and thoughts of her serve to get him through the war despite falling for someone else along the way.

As stated in the afterword, the author traveled the world researching the settings and time period for the story, but it doesn’t feel like the world seen in contemporary war stories.  In one scene he shows how a Japanese official hiding him during the war is unthinkably risking his life and his daughter’s.  Immediately the official’s daughter reveals state secrets to him, during wartime, to an American–the enemy.  This is an intelligent, educated, worldly Japanese family.  Finding a murderer for revenge can’t possibly outweigh the incredible risks involved.  McGrady has lucked his way out of getting killed as an American in a Japanese prison during wartime, and once he’s safe he’s not thinking about global issues of civilization crumbling, he’s laser-focused on that single case, one case of his fairly long career, which in the big picture probably doesn’t matter anymore except to his captive.  Readers may get the vibe some trickery is afoot a la Homeland, but that doesn’t pan out.  The closest parallel is the drama in Argo–this is a simpler story of just getting out, getting away, and getting home.

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The novel has a quirky thesis that surfaces more than once: if one young woman hadn’t been killed in November 1941 in Oahu, there may never had been an attack on the U.S., and Japan’s attempts at war might have been thwarted.

The book is certainly interesting, and a page-turner with a unique approach if you’re a fan of the true crime edge of historical noir, even if it feels less like traditional noir.  It’s a lot of good ideas, many stories, many angles, probably too many ideas for one book crunched into one character involved in so much.   Ultimately it’s sort of a romance of a guy who falls for too many women, “sort of” because it’s not a very good romance, as he tends to fall for every new woman he encounters.  The mystery is which one he ends up with and secondarily it’s how he gets to the bad guy–a “Jack the Ripper meets Nazi operative” brand of really bad guy.  Strikes against the story are happenstance occurrences that keep the protagonist alive and streamline his path to solve the crime.

The “Five Decembers” of the title is the span of the story that explains little of what’s between the endpapers.  Yet it’s worth reading for its unique approach.  Fans of Herman Wouk and Pearl Harbor as a subject will want to check out the book for the experience.

The best parts have some commonality with Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun.  But why set this in Japan and why Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, for the hook?  It could have been set at any other time or place.  Many books and movies and shows have fictionalized Pearl Harbor and Hawaii, from From Here to Eternity, In Harm’s Way, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and even more recently with Pearl Harbor, collateral damage of war stories like Mrs. Miniver, to episodes of Hawaii Five-O and Magnum, p.i., so it’s been done.  Eighty years later the setting is certainly valid, but doesn’t seem required for the detective solving this case.  Ultimately, the novel will definitely give you much to talk about.  McGrady’s trials and tribulations are exhausting.

War is really merely the backdrop for a story of a put-upon detective in a genuinely circuitous trail of a killer.  It’s an interesting choice for a Hard Case Crime selection, and a demonstration of editor Charles Ardai’s efforts to continue to expand the imprint’s scope.  Order Five Decembers, a book that will come at you from many angles, available now for pre-order here at Amazon.

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