December 1941. America teeters on the brink of war, and in Honolulu, Hawaii, police detective Joe McGrady is assigned to investigate a homicide that will change his life forever. Because the trail of murder he uncovers will lead him across the Pacific, far from home and the woman he loves; and though the U.S. doesn’t know it yet, a Japanese fleet is already steaming toward Pearl Harbor.
FIVE DECEMBERS tells a sweeping story that spans all of World War II, from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima and beyond. What is your personal connection to this period that made you want to write this book?
I live in Honolulu, where most of this book is set, and the pull of history is everywhere. There are still bullet holes from Japanese Zeros in some of the hangars on Ford Island and Kalaeloa. There are pill boxes and fortifications in the hills around my house. You can stand on the deck of the USS Missouri, on the exact spot where WWII ended with a pen stroke, while looking at the remains of the Arizona, where America’s war began.
Before the pandemic, I was traveling between Honolulu, Tokyo, and Hong Kong three or four times a year for work, so I had a lot of time to stare out an airplane window and think. I wanted to tell a story that was big enough to fit the canvas I was flying over.
More than just a gripping crime thriller, FIVE DECEMBERS is also a powerful love story and war story. Who were some of the authors outside the crime genre that inspired you?
Mark Helprin’s novel A Soldier of the Great War is one I reread every few years. It’s got everything: love, revenge, war, and adventure, all set in prose that reads like poetry. It’s a truly beautiful book.
I read a lot of nonfiction, too. Iris Chang, Richard Rhodes, and William Shirer inspired me to get out and research far and wide so I could tell a story without tripping over the facts. I didn’t discover Ian Toll until after I’d already written Five Decembers, but his Pacific War trilogy, culminating with Twilight of the Gods, just blew me away.
Without giving anything away, the book takes a startling turn halfway through that dramatically changes what sort of book you think you’re reading. Were you at all nervous about bringing readers along through this transition?
The transition you’re referring to was the first concrete idea I had about the book before I sat down to start writing it. The point of the whole exercise was to put a character through that to see what happened to him. So yes, I was nervous that if I didn’t handle it well then my purpose in writing the book would be lost. But mostly I was just excited to reach that point.
Your characters go through some truly heartbreaking experiences, but somehow never entirely lose hope. What keeps them going through the darkest times?
This is actually a hat tip to an entire generation of people. By way of example: in 1941, my grandfather and great uncle were poor kids on a farm in Oklahoma. In 1944 they were getting into gunfights in Libya, dropping bombs on Berlin, and running through German lines to capture V-2 rockets. And by the fall of 1945, they were back in Oklahoma raking hay. You’d be lucky to get a word out of them about the war.
President Kennedy once said that “in the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum need.” The people who lived through the war years were handed a role no one would ask for. But they did what they had to do and then, for the most part, they just carried on with their lives. I wanted to pay tribute to that kind of strength.
Did you choose Hard Case Crime as your publisher in part because their old-style graphic design places the reader into the period of the book even before they turn the first page?
I was absolutely delighted to land with Hard Case Crime. It had been on my radar since 2013, when Stephen King published Joyland. The books look and feel like they came out of the 1940s, and I think they’re beautiful. Charles Ardai is an incredible editor, and is amazing to work with. Collaborating with him and Claudia Caranfa on the cover was an entirely new experience for me, and a lot of fun. And I have to add that my daughter, who is three years old, is a big fan of the cover: she’s convinced it’s a painting of her mother.
Thank you, James Kestrel and Bruce Mason
About the Author
Formerly a bar owner, a criminal defense investigator, and an English teacher, James Kestrel is now an attorney practicing throughout the Pacific. His writing has won advance praise from Stephen King, James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, Meg Gardiner, James Fallows, Pico Iyer, and numerous other authors. A sailor and world traveler, Kestrel has lived in Taiwan, New Orleans, and a West Texas ghost town. He lives in Volcano, Hawaii.