Friday, 13 February 2009


I was impressed by the first Don Winslow novel I read, the excellent California Fire & Life, which I reviewed way back in 1999 for Crime Time 2.6 (number 18 if you're counting in decimals). The Power Of The Dog was one of the best books of 2005, a major novel that deserved mainstream attention. Since then he's published two well-crafted suspense novels, The Winter Of Frankie Machine (which Michael Mann is filming, starring Robert De Niro, for release next year) and The Dawn Patrol (which I reviewed last October for Crime Time, you can find that here), strong on characterization and setting, which I've compared elsewhere to T. Jefferson Parker's consistently successful Orange County stand-alones. But if Winslow has been strong on Californian background, it is nothing compared to this brilliant love-note to 1950s Manhattan.

I hadn't known what to expect when I uncovered a copy of the original Arrow edition, published two years before CF&L. Isle Of Joy, it turns out, is a small-scale tour de force. It should have made some reputation for Winslow, although I can see why it may have been overlooked at the time. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek spy thriller, it's not quite comic enough to be farce, but given the way the story proceeds to a most serious finish, one wonders if, had the overall tone been more serious throughout, it might have reached a bigger audience. I think the same fate has befallen a couple of Robert Littell's books, and it's a fine line to walk.

This one is a roman a clef, with a thinly-disguised John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, who in this case is conflated with an earlier JFK lover into a spy. Walter Withers is an ex-CIA agent now working as a PI in late 1950s New York, when he is assigned to bodyguard Senator Joe Keneally's and his wife on Christmas Eve. But his real function is to act as beard when Kenneally needs to sneak off with actress Marta Marlund, and of course Marlund winds up dead, in Keneally's room. What follows is a story which twists and turns between the police, FBI, and CIA, with political capital up from grabs and betrayal suggested at every turn. There are more characters whose models are easily recognisable, not least a fiery Jack Kerouac. Everyone has secrets to hide, even Withers' erstwhile girlfriend, nightclub singer Anne Blanchard, whose life in the Village contrasts sharply with Walter's staid WASPy uptown.

That's important, because as I said the real beauty of this novel is its nostalgic portrayal of New York City in the late 1950s, when it was the center of the known universe, and when anything was possible. Winslow does as fine a job as anyone I've read at conveying the real feel of the era: if you've been watching Mad Men on television, you need to go back a few years before the really modern stuff started to take hold, before the fabric of life itself started to change. It's wonderfully evocative, while at the same time hinting that the betrayals and twists of the worlds of politics and spying were somehow part and parcel of the new world which was coming.

There's also a key scene set at the 1958 NFL championship game, between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts, the so-called 'Greatest Game Ever Played', when pro football began to slip into the nation's consciousness to replace baseball. Although Winslow makes a couple of sporting errors (Jim Parker, not Joe; and New York wouldn't be talking about Mantle and Maris together in 1958, as Maris was in Kansas City) they're not serious (of course, not everyone is a sports pedant, luckily for them. I'd noticed a couple of baseball anachronisms, and a train-route problem, in the proofs of The Given Day, but according to Dennis Lehane they were caught before the book went to press) I hope they were corrected when Arrow reissued the book last year. The audience that lapped up Mad Men, which was enough for The Mendes Family to hack up Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road on their behalf, ought to lap this up too. It's Yates' era, but it's dealing with the Manhattan the characters in RR left behind. In fact, Winslow nails Yates' dilemma when Walter mulls over the impending death of the Manhattan bar.

'This new American dream, neither city nor country but a banal melange of the two. A society connected by television and automobile and little else except the desperate delusion...that we all want the same thing, a house in the suburbs...A few more years and the clubs will be dead...and I'll be one of the few mourners at the wake. The rest of America will be in their suburban bomb shelters sitting in the televised glow of the seemingly endless parade of cowboy shows.'

That's a brief contemplative pause in what's otherwise a fast and entertaining trip. Winslow deserves a wider audience, and this is the kind of book that, once he has that audience, would cement his reputation.

Isle Of Joy Don Winslow Arrow (1996) £6.99 ISBN 0099706415 reissued 2008 ISBN 9780099706410

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