Thursday, December 9, 2021


As a teenage sailor, I served aboard an aircraft carrier in the early 1970s during the Vietnam War. In between line periods in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam, we made the memorable port of calls to Honolulu, Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines. I was interested in James Kestrel’s crime thriller, “Five Decembers,” as his characters operate in those interesting places, albeit during an earlier era, World War II.

I reached out to James Kestrel and asked what inspired him to write a crime thriller set in World War II. 

“I have always been interested in history, and the history of WWII is particularly interesting because it still has so many visible impacts on the world,” Mr. Kestrel replied. “I live in Honolulu, so on any given weekend, I might run across a pillbox on a beach or an old ammunition storage tunnel in the side of a mountain. My grandfather and great uncle were both in the US Army Air Forces during the war, in Europe, and as I child, I used to love it whenever I could stay up late enough to hear them talk about their experiences.” 

Mr. Kestrel said his day job often took him to Japan and Hong Kong, and, wanting to write a book on a much larger canvas than anything he’d tried before, he began to explore Tokyo and Hong Kong.

How would you describe the novel?

“It’s the story of a Honolulu Police Department detective who catches a double murder investigation in late November 1941. Unfortunately for him, his investigation leads him across the Pacific to Hong Kong, which is where he is when America is drawn into the war,” Mr. Kestrel said. “It’s certainly a noir novel, but it has a middle section that is probably different than what most readers would expect going into a book that starts off with a detective in a fedora drinking a whiskey in a Chinatown dive.”

How did you research the novel?

“I wanted the novel to be as accurate as possible but didn’t want the research to get in the way of the story or the process of writing it. So I did a lot of the research as I was writing, and then kept researching up until the point where the book was going to print, and I could no longer make corrections,” Mr. Kestrel explained. “The research itself was a mix of hitting the books, hitting the streets, and talking to people,” Mr. Kestrel explained. “The senior partner of my law firm is 83 and grew up in Hawaii. He’s a fan of my books, so I spent a lot of time at the Waialae Country Club with him and his cronies, listening to stories about Hawaii. I have a lot of clients and friends in Japan and Hong Kong, and they did the same for me there.”

Were your characters based on real people, other than Admiral Kimmel?  

“There are several minor characters based on real people. Honolulu’s Chief of Police at the outbreak of the war was a man named William Gabrielson, who appeared in the novel. He apparently played a key role in helping the military manage Honolulu’s red-light district during the war and afterward went on to consult with the occupation police forces in Tokyo,” Mr. Kestrel said. “Honolulu FBI station chief Bob Shivers was a real person as well. He probably deserves a lot of credit for the fact that Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not thrown into internment camps at the same rate as those on the West Coast — he quickly investigated and denounced false rumors that local Japanese had been involved in sabotage on December 7, and generally stood up for the community. When McGrady is on Wake Island, he meets with Major Devereaux and Lieutenant Kahn, who were both real people.”

How would you describe your character, Detective Joe McGrady?

“McGrady is kind of like a pit bull: Really great when he’s on your side, but for God’s sake, don’t break into his house.”

How would you describe the killer that McGrady chases across Asia?

“The killer is mostly an enigma until the last few chapters, and unfortunately, his story ends before we learn too much about him. The killer probably wanted to see himself as someone like McGrady: a good man, a moral man, but a man saddled with the duty to do a job. But he’s also a German intelligence agent in WWII, so his duties and his possible humanity are entirely incompatible,” Mr. Kestrel explained.

“Five Decembers” is a well-written and suspenseful crime thriller with a backdrop of a world at war.

• Paul Davis’ “On Crime” column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.

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Five Decembers
By James Kestrel 
Hard Case Crime, $22.99, 432 pages

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