Don Winslow Reading List
Don Winslow is my kind of writer – he has a passion for research, combined with a vivid imagination and the kind of humor that can embrace the good, the bad and the incomprehensible. New York Times book critic Janet Maslin praised one of his books for fusing “the grave and the playful, the body blow and the joke, the nightmare and the pipe dream.” Wish I had said that!
His own life has always informed his books; his upbringing on the East Coast, his move to California. But his ace in the hole in writing about crime is that for years he worked as a private investigator, everything from industrial espionage to arson cases. According to a New York Times profile, Winslow used to read writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard while sitting in his car on stakeouts (I have always wondered what cops and private investigators do in all those hours in the car).
Like a lot of crime fiction writers, Winslow tends to write books in series (publishers love that, because it sells more books). The first was the Neal Carey series, five books in all.
Winslow’s first Neal Carey book was A Cool Breeze on the Underground. Published in 1996, it introduced Neal Carey, a Columbia University graduate student with an upbringing on the mean streets of New York.
Neal works part time for a private investigator whose main client is The Bank, a financial institution that specializes in keeping its wealthy clients happy. Well-paying part time job – what could possibly go wrong? Then he is dispatched to find the daughter of a prominent Senator and follows her into the mean streets of London, where things go seriously sideways.
The book that introduced Winslow to an even wider audience was 1997’s The Death and Life of Bobby Z. This book had an exceedingly clever plot, and also involved the Mexican drug wars, a topic that continues to pre-occupy this San Diego-based author.
Here’s the capsule version: a Mexican drug lord wants to do a prisoner exchange – he’s holding a DEA agent, and he wants Bobby Z, a former associate, back. The problem is – Bobby Z has died in a Thai prison. So the authorities strong-arm another prisoner, Tim Kearney, a man with an uncanny resemblance to Bobby Z, into impersonating him. The problem is – the drug lord doesn’t want Bobby Z back because of his high regard for him – he wants him back because he believes Bobby Z stole $3 million from him. This is an extremely funny and fast-faced book, and was one of the first of Winslow’s to attract attention from Hollywood.
I’m going to jump around a bit and go straight to California Fire & Life, the book that introduced me to Don Winslow. I loved this 1999 book. It’s about Jack Wade, an arson investigator with Orange County known for his competence and smarts until a violation of department rules undoes him. So he becomes an investigator for an insurance company, and is called in to investigate the burning of a California gazillionaire’s house – with the gazillionaire’s wife in it. So Jack investigates both an arson and a murder, competing with his Orange County nemesis, another investigator who got him fired in the first place.
The thing about this book that blew me away was the depth of knowledge Winslow, who worked as an arson investigator himself, brought to this story. His ability to absorb a great deal of information and turn it into thrilling fiction would serve him well in The Cartel. You learn everything about fire – its awful power, and how people try to retrace its path when a crime is committed. It was one of those books that managed to be hugely entertaining and informative at the same time. It also featured Winslow’s trademark sense of humor, in play for even the direst of plot developments.
Then there’s Winslow’s collection of surf noir, which includes a number of books.
To mention a couple, there’s 2006’s The Winter of Frankie Machine. This one concerns a former hit man who has retired to the quiet life on a California beach. Then his past catches up with him, and he has to deal with a threat to himself, and his family, not to mention his surfing career. Then there’s 2008’s The Dawn Patrol, which features part-time surfer, part-time private investigator Boone Daniels. Does he live to surf, or does he surf to live? Like all good private investigators (in fiction, anyway), Boone has a past – he’s obsessed with the unsolved case of a young girl named Rain who was abducted back when he was on the San Diego police force. He blames himself and seriously impacts his quality surfing time, not to mention his own well-being, by looking into it.
2010’s Savages is the next book that got Winslow big time exposure in Hollywood – it was made into a movie, directed by Oliver Stone. It features another set of Winslow’s competent slackers as characters – in this case Ben, a part-time environmentalist, philanthropist and ace marijuana cultivator and his ex-mercenary sidekick who run a marijuana operation. Then, guess who pops up? The Mexican Baja cartel, which wants in. As we learned from The Cartel, this is not a proposition you would ordinarily refuse, to paraphrase the Godfather’s Don Corleone. The cartel kidnaps a friend of the pair, and their struggle to free her sends the plot into overdrive. The New York Times said of the movie version of “Savages” – Savages” is a daylight noir, a western, a stoner buddy movie and a love story, which is to say that it is a bit of a mess. But also a lot of fun, especially as its pulp elements rub up against some gritty geopolitical and economic themes.”
Finally, The Power of the Dog: This was the prequel to The Cartel, and like its successor, it aimed to be a fictional history of the drug wars, starting way, way back in the Nixon era. It introduced Art Keller and Adan Barrera, the two men whose titanic struggles frame the story of The Cartel. Art Keller is a DEA agent who badly wants to take down the leader of the Sinaloa cartel he’s willing to make some dubious alliances to do it. This is the era when the War on Drugs started and the flood of drugs from Mexico into America began – remember crack cocaine? We’re still dealing with the consequences.