Tuesday, 7 September 2010


Ben is a philanthropist, and his buddy Chon is a mercenary. Together they are purveyors of the finest weed in Laguna Beach, and with their mutual squeeze Ophelia they are enjoying the best laid-back life sunny California can offer. But their business is not, at heart, laid back, and when the Mexican Baja Cartel decides they need to diversify into businesses north of the border, they make Ben and Chon an offer they can't refuse. Only they do.

After his drug war tour-de-force The Hour of the Dog, Winslow down-shifted and published two novels about the surfer private detective Boone Daniels. Those books, which you'll find reviewed elsewhere at this site, are funny, sharp looks at the California Dream a marked contrast from their predecessor, which was comprehensive, violent, dark, and almost manic in its pace, which helped it in covering such vast scopes of greed, politics, and government corruption, in the US and in Mexico.

With Savages it's as if Winslow has decided to merge those two strands into one, reminding us that Ben may come off as a laid-back Boone Daniels-type, but his business is a violent one, which is part of the reason Chon is around, and the story of Savages is really the story of the reality of their work catching up to them.

What makes it work is the way Winslow writes it. The depths hidden beneath the above synopsis are belied by the book's very Californian style narrative and half-stoned tone. It is immensely funny at times, not least in the constant duel between Ophelia and her mom, whom she calls PAQU (for Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe), which in its way stands for the sort of live our heroes are trying to avoid. But many books have been written, and many films have been made, about the dark side of the Dream where America melts into the sea, and few of them have done what Winslow has done, presenting the darkness as an integral part of the light, the happy life-style, mellow yin and violent yang, which Ben and Chon reflect, indeed parallel in their own existence.

If you're looking for a comparison with current crime writing, you won't really find one here. I'd liken it to two novels from a previous generation, both of which were made into seriously underrated neo-noir; Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and, particularly in the baroque Jules et Jim aspects, Cutter And Bone by Newton Thornburg (Larry McMurtry's excellent Leaving Cheyenne sprang to mind too). The seeming casualness of the prose, and the seeming precision of the plot, leave the reader unprepared for the starkness of the denouement, which does on a micro level what Hour Of The Dog did on the macro. Instead of the manic drive which he needed to cover the scope of that book, full of corruption at the highest levels, here he brings the drug business into sharp personal and local focus. It's not didactic, but it makes the point clearly.

Oh, and did I mention Oliver Stone is going to make a movie of this? You can see where he'd want to, and if you can't see it you can probably still find a copy of my book The Pocket Essential Oliver Stone if you look for it! The themes of drugs, love, excess lifestyle, violence, and Mexico would be hard for the director to resist.

Pulling off the challenge of writing a deadly serious novel with a satiric and ironic comic tone is a huge accomplishment, but I believe Winslow has done this before. In fact, for all the comparisons with excellent work I've mentioned, I'm inclined to see this not only as a melding of his last three books, but as a bookend, East Coast and West, one era to another, to his magificent 1950s Manhattan period piece, Isle Of Joy (see my take on that here)...a book that catches the spirit of a time, uplifting and depressing as that may be. Winslow may well be the most versatile and interesting crime writer out there right now.

Savages by Don Winslow
William Heinemann £12.99 ISBN 9780434020829

NOTE: A slightly different version of this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)


Ruzz said...

"Pulling off the challenge of writing a deadly serious novel with a satiric and ironic comic tone is a huge accomplishment" I still remember with consider fondness the La La Land books by R. Wright Campbell from the late 80s. They seem largely forgotten now but had this quality of humour skating over horror. Crais had something of it in the earlier books, before he shifted gear into portentousness.

I bought a large amount of Wimslow partly off the back of your earlier reviews - and I can entirely see where you are coming from, even if I'm not wholly convinced by any of the books. They never quite manage to end in a convincing way, rather than overly tidily, which then tends to undermine the message of chaos.

But your review will send me back to the La La Land books. And lets face it, I'll no doubt buy Savages too.

p.s. Roll on Sunday - looking forward to seeing you in your alternate identity of a mild-mannered NFL pundit.

wendallpauls said...

Don Winslow is an amazing author, but this is not his best. It's good, but with the different style used I can see alot of people not even making the effort because it's not the format they expect. And that's a shame, because the message Winslow is trying to convey is of extreme importance. And by the way, it's The Power of the Dog, not The Hour of the Dog - an amazing work.

Ελλάδα said...

Savages is part Elmore Leonard, part Cormac McCarthy, with each at the top of their game. It is, by turns, laugh out-loud funny and seriously grim. The blood flows like the Nile and the jokes come rapid fire. Welcome to the other side of life on the border. Winslow has now taken his seat at the table of the crime fiction gods. Whatever he attempts, in whatever mood, form, tone or sub-genre, the result is the same--a masterpiece.