I am classified as a baby boomer because of the year I was born (1961) but I kind of think I am an exception to that rule, or should be, at any rate. My parents just missed being boomers, being born in 1942, but they don’t remember the war, and I think the war is the real defining generational moment. But I grew up around older people (they seemed ancient!) who had served. Our neighborhood in Chicago was a melting pot of various eastern/middle European refugees who came after the war, and for me that made the war seem very real as opposed to a historical event. We saw all the films in elementary school about the war–along with some extraordinary pro-American anti-Communist patriotic propaganda–and as very young children we were exposed to the films of the camps. The Holocaust was real, it was recent, and it was still absolutely horrifying. (We were also taught why using atomic weapons on Japan was the right, moral decision and hey, they started it after all–but that’s a topic for another day.) I remember watching a documentary series on PBS called The World at War, and of course, old war films were being shown on television all the time. (And somehow, Hogan’s Heroes was also on the air when I was a child–and then rerun in syndication for quite a while.) I read a lot of war fiction growing up–From Here to Eternity to The Caine Mutiny to War and Remembrance to The Young Lions to Tales of the South Pacific. I read a lot of World War II books–and there were even more books where it was a major part of the plot but it did affect the story and the characters in some way. (You can even stretch and include The Godfather–both book and movie–because Michael Corleone was a war hero at the beginning.)
I also fell in love with Hawaii the first time I went in 1991; I went every year after that until 1995 (thank you, flight benefits!) and I miss it. I would love to go back again, and I would imagine it’s very different there now than it was the last time I was there. But on one of those trips to Hawaii–I don’t remember which one–I came up with a very basic idea for a book, that would open on December 8, 1941. The wrecks in Pearl Harbor were still smoking and the entire island chain was on high alert. My idea was to then have an Army brass’ wife call the local police station to report a murder: she found the young Japanese man who worked for her doing yard work and odd jobs with his throat cut in her rose bushes. That was as far as the idea ever progressed, and I never have had the time to sit and think it through. But I love that opening idea, and that set-up; even as I type these words now characters are taking shape in my head (KNOCK IT OFF, CREATIVITY)…anyway, so it was a no-brainer that I wanted to to read Five Decembers by James Kestrel the first time I learned of its existence.
Joe McGrady was looking at a whiskey. It was so new the ice hadn’t begun to melt, even in this heat. A cacophony surrounded him. Sailors were ordering beers ten at a go, reaching past each other to light the girls’ cigarettes. Someone dropped a nickel in the Wurlitzer, and then there was Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra. The men compensated for the new noise. They raised their voices. They were shouting at the girls now, and they outnumbered them. The night was just getting started, and so far they weren’t drinking anything harder than beer. They wouldn’t get to fistfights for another few hours. By the time they did, it would be some other cop’s problem. So he picked up his drink, and sniffed it. Forty-five cents per liquid ounce. Worth every penny, even if a three-finger pour took more than an hour to earn.
Before he had a taste of it, the barman was back. Shaved head, swollen eyes. Straight razor scars on both his cheeks. A face that made you want to hurry up and drink. But McGrady set his glass down.
“Joe,” Tip said.
“Telephone–Captain Beamer, I guess, You can take it upstairs.
He knew the way. So he grabbed the drink again, and knocked it back. The whole thing, one gulp. Smooth and smoky. He might as well have it. If Beamer was calling him now, then he was going to be pulling overtime. Which meant tomorrow–Thursday–was going to be a bust. Molly was going to be disappointed. On the other hand, he’d be drawing extra pay. So he could afford to make it up to her later. He put three half-dollars on the bar, wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve, and went upstairs.
I had heard great things about this book–it literally won the Edgar for Best Novel last month–and of course, it’s time and setting (a murder mystery set in Honolulu just before, during and after December 7? Oh hell yeah) made it a must-get. I didn’t read it as soon as I got a copy of course; it went into the TBR stack and moved up quite a few places after it won the Edgar. On the one hand, I’d heard nothing but great things about the book (and it won the Edgar)…but on the other hand, I also was worried about how this Pearl Harbor noir might affect my potential write-sometime-in-the-future-but-before-I-die Pearl Harbor murder mystery; namely, would I simply think oh this is so fucking good I can’t bear to write something that would be compared (unfavorably) to it because mine would inevitably be the weaker of the two? (I know how unhinged this sounds, but I’ve never pretended that anything that goes on inside of my brain is anything other than that.)
Yes, the book is that good, and no, it didn’t leave me thinking that I could never write my own book idea. If anything, it made me think, oh, I should try mine at some point but I am going to have to do a shit ton of research–which was something I already was aware of, to be fair–but its a good idea and could be interesting and fun to work on.
So, yeah, there was clearly no need to wait to read this outside my own neuroses.
Joe McGrady is the hero of this tale, which does indeed open in late November/December 1941 and finally wraps up the case in December 1945–the “five Decembers” of the title. Joe is ex-military and wound up in Honolulu on the police force, where he is neither liked nor trusted because he didn’t come up through the ranks; the thin blue line in Honolulu considers him to be an outsider. The case he catches while having a drink in the bar involves two bodies found butchered in a hut on a pineapple plantation; a young white male and a young Japanese female, stripped nude and essentially gutted. The case has wider implications other than the apparent (“my god, someone butchered two people in an extremely violent and gory way!”) as the young man is the nephew of Admiral Kimmel, the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Naval Fleet. As tensions between the United States and Japan are heating up to the inevitability of war, the murder of someone related to a person so high up in the chain of command could be espionage, could be any number of things that could have an effect on the security of the country and the Pacific fleet–and we, as readers, are also very aware of what’s around the corner in just a few days. Joe does note that his boss seems a bit weird about the investigation, and he’s paired with a bruiser detective who likes to beat information out of people and confessions out of possibly innocent people. He’s dating a young woman who attends the University, and may even be falling in love with her. We don’t get a lot of backstory on Joe, but the strength of the authorial voice makes unemotional, mostly internal Joe a hero you can root for. The trail of the murders eventually leads to Hong Kong, and Joe sets off on the transoceanic flight, which includes stops at Guam and Wake Island, where he picks up more clues and the trail of the possible killer–and there’s a murder victim on Wake kind of similar to the ones in Hawaii. But once he arrives in Hong Kong he decides not to immediately go to the police department there and ask assistance; rather he decides to follow the trail himself at first…a mistake, as he winds up getting arrested and framed for a rape. He is in the Hong Kong jail hoping that the US Embassy will get him out when the bombs start falling. He is taken to Japan as a prisoner of war, and the case–and the book, take a completely surprising twist and turn once he is there.
Anything else would be a spoiler, so I can’t really talk about the story anymore–but it’s compelling, convincing, beautiful and tragic and sad all at the same time. We see a lot of things through Joe’s eyes–both inhumanity and humanity; the absolute horrors of war (there’s a horrifyingly grim account of the fire bombing of Tokyo), and finally, the war ends, he returns to Hawaii, and is able to at long last close the case in a way that is enormously satisfying.
I really really enjoyed this immersive book which used a hardboiled crime story to talk about the horrors of war and the inhumanity that xenophobic and racist values and beliefs can create. It was riveting and very hard to put down once I started.
Highly, highly recommended.