Noir to me is stylistically very interesting because you have this opportunity to explore very intense emotions and situations but to make it in such a stylized fashion, that is still beautiful. That’s what I’m always striving for.
Honolulu, November 26, 1941, a Wednesday evening just before Thanksgiving. Police detective Joe McGrady has just ordered a whiskey when the barkeeper tells him that there is a call waiting for him – from the Captain of the Honolulu Police. McGrady doesn’t know it yet but this call will change his life. Not only will it set him on the trail of a sadistic murderer, but it will also lead him across the Pacific, to Hong Kong. It will not be long until his investigation is overshadowed by war because across the ocean the Japanese fleet is preparing to set course on Pearl Harbour.
Five Decembers is a Russian doll of a novel: a crime story within a war epic within a love story. Thoroughly researched, it affords readers a distinct perspective on World War II without feeling didactic. While the novel spans different countries – Honolulu, Hong Kong, Tokyo – it always has a firm sense of place. We roam the streets of Honolulu and Hong Kong alongside detective Joe McGrady. Author James Kestrel combines the best aspects of noir – a grippingly dark murder case, a crushing sense of inevitability, an emotionally reticent main character, all juxtaposed with and heightened by prose so poetic it is hypnotic. At the same time, Kestrel eschews the more problematic aspects of noir – there are no classic femme fatales in this book and the violence, while gritty and pervasive, is never glorious. We root for McGrady to solve the case as much as we want him to be loved and at peace with himself.
Five Decembers has been nominated for Best Novel in the Edgar Allen Poe Awards 2022 as well as Best Thriller in the Barry Awards 2022.
Retreats from Oblivion sat down with author James Kestrel – a pseudonym for a writer with six published novels under his belt – to talk about Five Decembers, the process of writing noir and whether we will meet Joe McGrady again.
Where did the inspiration for Five Decembers come from?
My day job is as an attorney, and I practice in Hawaii, but I have a lot of clients in Japan and Hong Kong. Prior to the pandemic, my job was sending me frequently to Tokyo and Hong Kong. Whenever I’m in a new place, I like to explore and walk around, learn about the history. As I was in those places I kept thinking about how Tokyo and Honolulu are historically connected, especially through World War II. America’s entry into World War II started in Honolulu, and it finished in Tokyo Bay. The ship where the surrender was signed is now sitting here in Honolulu. You can go stand on the exact spot where the surrender document was executed.
I have just always been fascinated with that history. Also, my grandfather and his brother were both navigators on bombers during World War II. I wanted to write a story that tackled that because my previous six books had been smaller in scale, and they all occurred in a much more compressed timeframe. I wanted to try something that was just really big.
So, one day, I was sitting on a China Eastern Airlines flight from Honolulu to Shanghai. I was just looking out the window, thinking about all this and I suddenly pictured this detective Joe McGrady. I realized that through him I could connect these three places and tell this story. My initial idea for the book was this detective who gets sent overseas, right before the war starts. His whole investigation gets derailed because he has to just focus on surviving. That was the initial impetus for the book and then I built on it from there.
It’s really interesting because McGrady is an American, he is opposed to the German-Japanese military aggression, but he also experiences the fire bombings of Tokyo in March 1945. That’s very interesting because we don’t often get to have both perspectives on World War II at once.
I think overall even though Joe McGrady kills a lot of people in the book, it’s actually a pacifist book at its heart. It tries to explore the fact that even if you have clearly defined good guys and bad guys, the things that go on in war are just horrific, and the things that are done in order to win a war like that are unconscionable. I wanted to try and bring some of that to life and explore that.
McGrady is an interesting protagonist, also because he isn’t perfect. He isn’t always on top of things. Sometimes in crime fiction, the protagonist excels at everything and is always one step ahead of the reader. McGrady is smart and he has a particular set of skills, but he isn’t perfect. Was that important to you, to write a protagonist who isn’t the typical tough cop, male fantasy?
I wanted to write somebody who was real. If he had been Jack Reacher say and always right, he wouldn’t have gotten on that plane in the first place because he would have known what was coming. And then there would be no book. I wanted him to make mistakes, and then have to figure out how to live through those mistakes. And he’s not perfect in his love life either. I just wanted to make him a believable character.
In another interview, you mentioned that you spent about three years in total on research for the book. You went to libraries and you talked to people who actually lived through the 1940s. Did you enjoy the process of research? And would you like to do it again, would you like to write another historical novel?
Oh, absolutely. I enjoyed it very much. I did some research before I started writing the book, but I did the bulk of the research as I was writing because I didn’t want the research to slow down the writing or to become a never-ending project that would prevent me from ever starting the book. So I did enough in the beginning, in order to get myself oriented in this different world of the 1940s. I continued as I was writing and I actually did a whole lot of further research after the book was done.
I have this great fear of getting irate emails from readers, pointing out mistakes, so I continued doing research right up until my editor told me that I could no longer make changes to the manuscript because the final book was going to print. So that’s how I did three years of research on the book. But yes, I have some ideas for the next novel, and it would also be historical fiction, but perhaps not quite in the 1940s. I do seriously enjoy doing the research and talking to people. Travel has been out of the question lately, but I love to travel to get an idea for things on the ground.
Did you watch any movies or listen to music from the 1940s to get into the mood?
I did listen to music. I would play a lot of 1940s Jazz as I was writing and that would help get me in the mood and the perspective of Joe McGrady in that timeframe. I did try and watch not so much movies but documentaries from the period because I wanted to see the world of the 1940s as it was. For Japan, I tried to find footage of life on the streets in Tokyo, prior to World War II because you can go to Tokyo today, and you can walk all over the city and not find very much. But there’s one particular neighbourhood in Tokyo called Yanaka, which is where the character of Mr Takahashi lives in the novel, and the Yanaka was miraculously spared from all firebombings. So if you walk around your Yanaka, today, you can still see the old wooden buildings with rice paper walls on the inside. That probably was what all of Tokyo looked like before it burned down.
What is it that attracts you to noir fiction? Even in your other books, the ones you’ve written under your real name and even when they are set in the present, they have a noir feel to them. Is there a reason why you gravitate towards that mood?
I don’t know. I feel like when I am writing a book, I’m trying to capture something that is slightly different than reality itself. I think of it as the difference between a photograph and a painting. I’m not a photographer, I’m a painter. I want to capture something that’s clearly recognizable. But I am making stylistic choices in order to highlight some things and cast other things in shadow. Noir to me is stylistically very interesting because you have this opportunity to explore very intense emotions and situations but to make it in such a stylized fashion, that is still beautiful. That’s what I’m always striving for. In my previous novels, even though they’re set in the 2010s, they could very well be set in the 1940s because they have that same feel to them.
One of the central aspects of the mood of noir is the poetic quality of the writing. Often, that is juxtaposed with an emotionally withdrawn main character. Your writing has that same beautiful quality to it. People have remarked that Five Decembers is a page-turner. And it is, but it’s not just because of the plot, it’s also because of the language which itself is riveting. Is that style of writing something that comes naturally to you?
Part of that is the benefit of having a very good editor. The novel is broken into three parts. The first third and the last third have this punchy language that is very staccato, you could imagine that Joe McGrady is thinking his thoughts as though he’s using two fingers to bang out a police report on a typewriter. The middle third is softer because McGrady’s out of his element. He’s stuck in this house in Japan and he’s not a policeman anymore, he’s just a man trying to survive.
The language in that middle third is different because McGrady’s thoughts and perceptions are different. The whole thing is told pretty tightly from his point of view. So that was something I was attentive to. But it was pretty easy writing the book. I’d sit down to write it and I would spend an hour just revising whatever I had written the day before, and then that would get me right into the place and when I started writing new material I would just be there in McGrady’s head and could just sit there all day if I had the time. It was a lot of fun.
Did you maybe feel the novel needed that particular, staccato-style sentence structure because McGrady at that point, isn’t much of a talker? I felt the language corresponds to this whole generation of men that didn’t really talk that much.
I did have that generation of men and women in mind as I was writing the novel. To go back to my grandfather and my great uncle, they wouldn’t really tell war stories. Years after they were both gone, I discovered that there was a book written by one of the pilots for a B-24 Liberator that my great uncle was the navigator for. That pilot ended up getting shot down and was a POW in Germany through the war, but my great uncle just happened to not be on that flight because he was taking a navigation refresher course that day.
In this book, there were incredible war stories that involved my great uncle that I had never heard of. And it just got me thinking about how all these men went off to war and experienced horrific things and did great deeds and then came back and worked on farms and worked in factories and just resumed their lives without making a big deal of it. They were just so damn quiet about it. It fascinated me that these people were able to compartmentalize such incredible things that they had been a part of and then move on with their lives. I think McGrady is like that. He just clinically goes through all of these things. He does certainly experience emotions, but he’s always doing his very best to tamp that down, he is ashamed to feel anything or let anyone else see him feeling anything. I suspect that that was a characteristic of that generation.
I wanted him to make mistakes, and then have to figure out how to live through those mistakes. And he’s not perfect in his love life either.
You mentioned spending time in Joe McGrady’s head. In a previous interview, you said that you don’t write yourself into your novels. How do you develop characters then, and do you enjoy feeling yourself into the head of someone who’s very different from you?
I do enjoy that and I think it helps me to be a better listener and more attentive to what’s going on around me. When I write a character who’s not me at all my first instinct whenever I’m writing a scene is quite possibly wrong because I’m thinking, what would I do in this situation? But that’s not the question. The question is, what would Joe McGrady do in this situation? Who is he and what’s driving him? What experiences is he bringing into this situation that inform what he does next?
I do try to think like that because I definitely don’t want to just write myself into my characters. But on the other hand, it’s probably impossible not to do that because all of this is ultimately coming out of my brain. Still, it’s something I pay attention to. The original draft of the book was actually far longer than what got published and it was told from the perspective of three different characters. I had a lot of fun with that because I got to do two other characters who were completely different than McGrady.
Is writing under a pseudonym something that liberates you when writing? Or was it more of a pragmatic decision?
It started out as a purely pragmatic decision and was simply that my last four books didn’t sell that well in the United States. My new editor at Hard Case Crime was concerned that bookstores would look at my last book and see how many copies it sold and order fewer than that for this one. And so it would just be doomed from the start. We decided to publish it under a pseudonym, but not make it a secret that it was a pseudonym. Then, shortly after the book was published, the New York Times ran a review and said who I really was. So that kind of blew my cover.
When I was writing the book, I didn’t know it would come out under a pseudonym. I don’t know how it will feel writing the next one as James Kestrel. It might feel liberating because not only will I be inhabiting the mind of a person who doesn’t exist, but I will be writing as a person who doesn’t exist. That’ll give me two layers of separation.
You mentioned earlier that writing the novel was easy for you. The Irish author, John Banville has said that sometimes, especially when writers start out, it can be difficult for them to get people in and out of rooms, i.e. to write people entering and leaving rooms. You’re not starting out, this is your sixth published novel, but is there something that you find particularly hard to write?
Starting books is very hard for me. I hadn’t heard that particular quote that you just gave me but yes, it’s very easy to get yourself stuck on getting somebody in or out of a room and it takes a while to learn how to just move from one scene to the next. When I’m writing I picture things. It’s very visual, whatever’s going on in my head is cinematic, I suppose. It has become easier for me to think like a director and think ‘Cut!’ And just move to the next scene. But for me, starting a book is very hard and I can mess around with the first 30 pages for a very long time before I start moving forward with it.
Have you ever thought about writing screenplays or is that something entirely different?
I have. When I was in high school, I took some screenwriting classes. I went to a boarding school, an art school and I was majoring in creative writing and I would take things like screenwriting. But I haven’t taken a screenwriting class since high school. That was a pretty long time ago now. So I would need to go and buy a book, like Screenwriting for Dummies or something because I don’t even remember what a screenplay looks like. So I would need to learn that format again but yes, it is something that interests me.
I would love to watch the film adaptation of Five Decembers with a screenplay written by you; that would be great.
Well, about 30 minutes ago, I got the final provisions in a contract that I expect I’ll be signing soon to option the screen rights. But it would be written by a pair of screenwriters who had some really fine films made and would likely do a far better job at adapting than me. So hopefully, that will all go forward and the film will actually get made.
You mentioned previously that you have a day job as an attorney. Is finding the time to write difficult? Or is writing a creative outlet that helps you with your day job?
Writing is definitely a creative outlet that helps me with my day job. Prior to the pandemic, finding time to write wasn’t too much of a problem. I could sneak out of the office and take long lunch breaks in a restaurant or a cafe or a bar and just sit down and write. My office is in downtown Honolulu and right next to us is our historic Chinatown district. There’s a lot of restaurants and bars there that were just great places to sit down and write because the bars are totally empty in the afternoons. So, I now feel like I’ve been locked out of my office for two years because I can’t go there. I have very young kids, so writing at home is just out of the question. It’s been hard for the last two years but hopefully, that will get better soon.
Yes, let’s hope it gets better soon. What’s next for James Kestrel? Can you imagine writing a series of novels with the same protagonist at some point?
I have thought about it. But I’ve never written a book yet that is a direct sequel to the one that came before. I have three books that I wrote, set San Francisco that are very loosely connected. But you can read them in any order and the main character in each one is different. I could see doing something like that for James Kestrel. I do have an idea for a next book. Joe McGrady might be in it, but he wouldn’t be a main character. Perhaps his daughter would be. The book that I’m thinking of, would be set, probably in 1968. But it would also involve things that happened during World War II. So anyway, I’m still thinking this book through and I haven’t written a word – yet.
Theresa Rodewald, MA, studied Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden and Cultural Studies in Germany and Ireland. She writes for a number of independent film magazines, including L-MAG and Berliner Filmfestivals, and has written about critiques of capitalism in current gangster films, images of masculinity in Scarface (1932) and the representation of queer women in mainstream cinema. She is a contributor to David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, December 2021).