Don Winslow has written thirteen novels, is the winner of one Shamus Award, nominee for an Edgar Award, and still remains unrecognized by too many readers. His absence from that superstar circle of writers like Lee Child, Michael Connelly and Robert Crais is something of a mystery. Possible that his refusal to ease up on the visceral reality of life in and around the drug cartels has prevented his rise to the top. Let us hope that Janet Maslin was right in her New York Times review of Winslow’s last book, Savages when she called the book, ‘…one that will jolt Mr Winslow into a different league.’
To my way of thinking, Don Winslow has always been in a different league, and one not an inch removed from perennial bestsellers like Connelly and Crais, both like Winslow, chroniclers of the southern California crime scene.
Published only three weeks ago, Winslow’s new book, Savages, is a hip-hop cool story of bad boys in southern California and hard to put down. The writer has a strong grip on the political and cultural history of the drug trade along the California-Mexico border, and you never for a moment doubt he knows of what he writes. The amazing thing about a new Winslow book is that you never know what style is going to color his story, frame his characters. From book to book his style changes. The Dawn Patrol (2009) is not like the earlier 2006 novel, The Power of the Dog, and neither is like the new book, Savages. His style, if nothing else is mercurial. At the same time you can be certain that some things won’t change: storytelling, diamond sharp characterizations, and the use of plot twists to keep the reader on edge.
But the style, language and dialogue of Savages deserves most of the praise. This time he has given us a southern California idiom that crackles with character and the stamp of now, today. While it is ultra-cool, it is also remarkable for its economy. Why use a sentence full of words when three capital letters and a number tell it all—2G2BT. And this is but a convenient example of the writer’s economy of expression. His short haiku-like paragraphs are a lesson in spare, lean prose rich enough to eat with a spoon.
Anti-heroes Ben and Chon are young so-cal dudes, developer-suppliers of high quality hydroponic weed, running their business out of Laguna Beach, CA. Their customer base is rock solid, and along with their girlfriend O (Ophelia) they live a good life. Ben, a Berkeley grad spends most of his time funding philanthropic projects in Africa and Southeast Asia. Chon is a school dropout, Navy Seal, ex-mercenary with two tours in Afghanistan. Ben handles the business, Chon handles the bad guys who put their fingers where they shouldn’t. But the bad guys—a Mexican drug cartel— want in, and to make sure Ben and Chon understand the options, they kidnap the girlfriend, O. Heads roll, bullets fly and blood spatters on the way to a solution, and you don’t want to miss a word of it.