Settle in, it’s a long ride. Briskly told, no question, but Five Decembers is in no rush. That’s part of the charm. The story is epic. It’s adventurous. The story zooms in on the details of one private detective’s life and one particular case. It zooms out to the bigger details of World War II. Nothing is forced. Nothing is overdone.
You don’t know where Five Decembers is going. Even when you start, you won’t know where it’s going. I highly recommend that you read precisely zero about this novel before diving in. Feel free to stop reading this review now, in fact, and start on page one.
Joe McGrady was looking at a whiskey.
There, I just saved you a sentence.
I recommend going in knowing precious little. It’s better that way. Novel? Yes. Mystery also? For sure. (Five Decembers won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2022.)
Honolulu police detective McGrady plays the long game. Correction. The long, long game.
Here, to me, is the secret to getting all us readers to go along with the story. Within a few pages, we already like Honolulu police detective Joe McGrady. He’s a likable team player. He’s willing to chip in on a murder case when his bosses need him—even when he’s got “essentially zero” experience for investigating a double-murder. In this case, a grisly scene. In fact, Kestrel ups the heinous factor so we know McGrady is up against a truly vile antagonist. Don’t be squeamish. Hang with McGrady. He’s in the process of getting his ire up.
We soon see McGrady’s ability to analyze and to comprehend the story that the crime scene reveals. Kestrel doesn’t skip on the details, particularly at the autopsy. Time might forget. Joe McGrady will not.
And then there’s Molly. Joe has got heart. He cares about Molly. He treats her well, treats others well. Five Decembers is a love story. Even if he is human, he’ll never forget. Joe McGrady is a man of few—i.e., careful—words. We’ve met plenty of private detectives like Joe McGrady, but not one who will do what Joe McGrady is about to do. He thinks he’s on a simple mission when he heads to Hong Kong to track down the lead suspect. He would be wrong.
Early on, at the double-murder crime scene on Oahu, there are signs that point west to Japan. There are signs that point east to Germany. World War II as backdrop. World War II as fabric. World War II is the “now” of Joe McGrady’s life. Never once did I feel that James Kestrel (a pseudonym for Jonathan Moore, who has written several suspense novels under his own name) added anything to the story that McGrady wouldn’t have known at the time and in the moment. Nor did Kestrel overdo it all with the war, even as the war intertwines with his case and even as the war explodes in scale.
The writing keeps it real. The mood is downcast. It’s as dark and moody and foreboding as the cover. The style transfixes. Kestrel paints in short, sharp brushstrokes.
“Tokyo spread and sprawled. It was as though someone had built a medieval village on a New York scale. They passed through vast wards of low wooden houses. He saw women drawing water into buckets from public wells. He saw men struggling against the wind, pushing wood wheeled carts. Miles like that. Then they entered richer neighborhoods. Western influences. Stone and brick buildings many stories tall. A train station that might have been plucked from central London. Intricate brickwork topped with bronze domes. Its hotel blazed with electric light. Past the station was a castle, surrounded by a moat. Its outer wall was made of hewn stones the size of boulders. Ancient willow trees dangled their winter bare branches toward the frozen water.”
Fifteen sentences, 123 words. (Average eight words per sentence; that’s taut.) Two commas. The whole book unspools like that. One fact follows another. The style builds credibility. And trust.
Five Decembers is sweeping. Five Decembers is intimate. Five Decembers goes around the world and comes right back home. Joe McGrady is trapped in every way a man can be trapped. There are historical implications to the story. There are major personal ramifications, too. There are things to learn about the world. It all works. One stubby, stubborn sentence to the next.