Going to War with Noir: On James Kestrel’s “Five Decembers”

December 2, 2021   •   By Matt Ellis

Five Decembers

James Kestrel

IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, you’re drawn to noir for the grim settings, moral ambiguity, and a cast of characters with cynical worldviews forged from a lifetime of hard knocks — damaged goods, everyone. For all these reasons, noir should be a perfect pairing with war. Where else are the stakes higher and the players so desperate, pushed to extremes in matters that are life or death?

Hell, some of the most notable pioneers of the noir page and stage went through the crucible themselves. Raymond Chandler survived the “war to end all wars” in the trenches of France with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In another World War I campaign, Dashiell Hammett was rushing around the battlefield aiding the wounded while serving in the Motor Ambulance Corps. Barely a generation later in World War II, Graham Greene was immersed in real international intrigue in Sierra Leone, working under Kim Philby, the man who would later become one of the most notorious Russian moles in history. While war doesn’t often play directly into their works, their trauma bleeds onto the pages, the subtext staining their characters with the regrets and the bruised values of people who were forced to do what was necessary to survive. I don’t know if James Kestrel, the author’s pseudonym, is a veteran, but he certainly red-lined the pressure by stranding his Five Decembers detective, Joe McGrady, in the middle of a war. If his protagonist wasn’t brooding enough before, he’s plenty hard-boiled now.

Though Five Decembers plays out in the Pacific Theater of World War II, its style is cemented firmly in the traditions of classic noir, from the nostalgic hand-painted pulp art cover, a hallmark of Hard Case Crime publishing, to a literal phone call to action interrupting McGrady’s first after-shift drink. We find him belly up at a seedy Honolulu bar packed with rowdy sailors on shore leave from Pearl Harbor. “Before he had a taste of it, the barman was back,” Kestrel writes. “Shaved head, swollen eyes. Straight razor scars on both cheeks. A face that made you want to hurry up 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 to make himself scarce before the long Thanksgiving holiday.

At the station, McGrady learns that there was a brutal murder on a dairy farm on the other side of Oahu. It’s his first homicide, and he’ll be working it alone. The police captain makes it clear that, although McGrady has lived on the island for five years since his military discharge, he’s still an outsider and hasn’t earned any trust yet. Political pressure mounts when one of the carved-up victims is identified as the missing nephew of a Navy admiral. The only murder suspect boarded a plane headed to Hong Kong on a fake passport and has apparently tortured and gutted a Marine on Wake Island, a military outpost and refueling spot for flights to East Asia. The admiral doesn’t accept jurisdictional excuses from the Honolulu Police Department. He demands that McGrady follow the trail wherever it leads, reasoning that the former Army soldier can handle himself, having seen combat action in China supporting the Marines during the Fujian Rebellion. In private, the admiral recommends that McGrady proceed with “operational discretion,” an option that requires him to operate clandestinely rather than announcing his investigative interests to foreign authorities.

On December 1, 1941, McGrady boards a flight to take him to Hong Kong via Midway, Wake Island, and Manila, and he’s overcome by wave of apprehension. In the last few days, his relationship with his girlfriend Molly has gone from casual fling to something more. He promises he will have a surprise for her when he returns sometime before Christmas. But we know that there is a ticking clock — the Japanese fleet is speeding their direction to launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in six days. McGrady is headed deep into what will soon become enemy territory.

He’d started at one American military base and had passed through four others on the way. At every stop, there’d been airfields lined with bombers. There’d been torpedo boats and massive earthworks around shore batteries. All of it had been built or moved, at great expense, to counter one threat. Everyone had known this storm was coming. Now the war was here. The only thing he could do about it was sit and wait.

The novel’s title, Five Decembers, is a clever reference that the story will move from crime thriller to war epic after the Japanese launch their offensive across Asia. In Hong Kong, McGrady falls into the hands of the invading Japanese Army and is swept along by the tide of war. The immensity of the global conflict allows Kestrel steep escalation with his plot twists that are not present in more conventional murder mysteries. I was often left asking, “Where could the plot possibly go from here?” Believe me, it gets bleak and twisted, and I can see why Hard Case Crime was excited to add this book to their noir collection.

Though this is the author’s first novel under the Kestrel pseudonym, Hard Case Crimes lists blurbs from his previous books by the likes of Stephen King, Lee Child, and James Patterson. This praise was clearly well deserved, as he displays the skills of a seasoned writer in his direct and concise prose, maintaining clarity throughout fast-paced action scenes and complicated and quick-turning plot points. Though Kestrel’s novel takes a detour from the classic noir tropes, he is faithful to the narrative style, seeding the story with so many Philip Marlowe– and Sam Spade–worthy observations that Humphrey Bogart was the narrator in my head: “A dog started to bark in the house next door. Good ears, McGrady thought. It probably knew everything, start to finish. If only Detective Ball could cuff it to a chair in an interrogation. Beat the story out of it.”

There are significant challenges inherent in plunging your reader into the past and orienting them accurately to the environment. While relying on actual world events as a catalyst can make the story feel more real, those not familiar 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 lessons or pop culture. Still, experiences on the Japanese side of the war, where much of the plot takes place, will be decidedly foreign to most. Kestrel seems to have anticipated this by including brief detours in time and point of view to add historical context about the offensive campaigns that loom over the plot. Not only are these vignettes effective in providing the appropriate sense of desperation and fear of firebomb raids and death, they also support the very noirish struggle the central characters suffer with questions of futility and fatalism. He also avoids the pitfall of othering the people on the Japanese side of the battle lines, by including noncombatants and critics of Emperor Hirohito’s campaign in order to show us a humanity that is not often seen on that side of the war.

McGrady’s journey includes a heavy dose of anguish from surviving war atrocities that can’t be unseen and being forced 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’d been in battles that had names. They could gather in bars, or toss footballs around in a park, and trade stories.”

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

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

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Matt Ellis is a former Army intelligence officer and diplomat turned writer. He is a 2021/2022 National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critic Fellow, and his work has been featured or is forthcoming in Publishers Weekly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, Thought Catalog, Sein und Werden, and PseudoPod. Follow him at @letswriting1 and www.letswriting.com.