Five Decembers

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The cover of this book (like many published by Hard Case Crime) brings back fond memories of haunting the paperback racks as a kid. I was more into science fiction back then, but the mystery section enticed young male eyes … well, Google "lurid paperback covers" to get an idea of the kind of art that was designed to snag the browser. And it wasn't just mysteries; check out this Mental Floss article to see how they sold 1984, Heart of Darkness, and—whoa—Madame Bovary.

So the cover promises some hard-boiled gratuitous sex and violence, while maybe skimping on … well … quality. But this book was mentioned in the New York Times' Best Mystery Novels of 2021, and it's really quite good. Don't judge a book by its cover.

Oh yeah, there's violence, and some sex. But none of it is really gratuitous. And hard-boiled? Well, you would break your teeth trying to eat an egg this hard-boiled.

Our protagonist, Joe McGrady, is a detective on the Honolulu police force. He's called to the scene of a gruesome double murder, involving torture and rape. Soon enough there's some fighting and gunplay, Joe prevails, the bad guy is killed, and … case closed?

No. One of the victims is the nephew of a Navy admiral. Joe makes a convincing case that there's still a shadowy perpetrator on the loose. Backed by Kimmel, Joe stays on the case, and after some impressive detective work he's following the killer's trail to the Far East,

I didn't mention that all this takes place in November and early December 1941. And the admiral is the real-life Admiral Kimmel, commander of the US fleet, based in Pearl Harbor. So history intrudes. Things go bad for Joe's investigation. And then things go very bad for Joe's investigation. The plot develops totally unexpected twists and turns, dovetailing with actual history.

So it's not just a mystery. It's also a love story, war story, kind of epic in scale. The (pseudonymous) author, James Kestrel, obviously did an impressive amount of research, getting the details of history, environment, and culture of the era just right. (Joe takes the legendary Pan Am Clipper out of Honolulu, lovingly described.)

I've seen an interview with the author where his somewhat strident and tedious political opinions are revealed. Fortunately, they're not on display on this book; I hope he doesn't succumb to what I think of as "Don Winslow Disease" in future work.