Don Winslow, gripping thrillers and good writing
by Steven Williams
Don Winslow was born in New York on Halloween in 1953 but grew up in Rhode Island. In describing his life and the influences that lead him to writing, he ascribes to his parents his greatest influences because. His mother was a librarian and his father was a Naval officer and both he and his friends in the service were great storytellers. Winslow attended the University of Nebraska where he majored in African History.
Winslow moved back to New York City in the late 1970s. His professional career is varied including managing a chain of movie theaters and including acting and directing in film, television, and the stage (including UC: Undercover, In World's Unknown, Full Ride and Close To Home). His work as a private investigator in movie theaters in the Times Square part of the city and later as a consulting private investigator in arson cases provided him with much of the experiences that enliven his mysteries. After various other unusual jobs, Winslow returned to school and earned his master's degree in Military History. After graduate school, he continued to take on uncommon jobs including leading safaris in Kenya and trekking tours in China.
Winslow wrote his first novel while he was still working as a safari guide and recovering from a bad case of dysentery. He says that he had been thinking about writing for some time and it seemed like a good time to start doing it. This first novel featured a private investigator named Neil Carey. Winslow has gone on to write fourteen novels in total. The five that use his Neil Carey character are A Cool Breeze on the Underground, The Trail to Buddha's Mirror, Way Down on the High Lonely, A Long Walk Up the Water Slide and While Drowning in the Desert and all of them are written with a humorous twist.
Winslow has also had some experience writing screenplays for Alexander Hamilton: In Worlds Unknown and The Full Ride. One of his novels, The Death and Life of Bobby Z is the only one so far that has been adapted to a feature film. It was released in 2007 as Bobby Z and starred Laurence Fishburne, Paul Walker and Keith Carradine. Winslow did not adapt his own novel into the screenplay.
Winslow has developed his career as a writer to the point where he has received some critical recognition. His first novel, 'A Cool Breeze On the Underground' was nominated for an Edgar Award. This has lead in turn to his nomination for both an Edgar Award and a Macavity Award. He has won a Shamus Award for 'California Fire and Life'. He currently lives on an old ranch in southern California and has spent his last twenty-four summers or so in Britain.
Winslow is noted for writing that focuses on character over plot. This is not the most frequently used approach used by mystery writers, but it does result in fiction that is more engaging and thoughtful. He generally prefers to confront his characters with conflicts that are both external and internal with the expectation that these experiences with change them in the course of the story. Much of his writing time is spent in developing a complete character, usually even before he begins writing the book.
It is no surprise that Winslow has received critical acclaim for his mysteries. He consciously focuses on producing good writing with strong characters. His current list of favorite authors to read reflect this awarness. They include Raymond Chandler, John D. Macdonald, James Lee Burke, Jeff Parker, Michael Robotham, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, John Harvey and Cormac McCarthy.
Savages: A Novel (July, 2010)
Winslow's newest crime novel is set in Laguna Beach, Califronia. It features two marijuana growers who seem to be on the road to success but then they receive an threatening e-mail from a Mexican cartel. There is a photograph attached to the email and it is of the headless bodies of some other independent drug dealers. Though it is not explicitely stated, the cartel is clearly telling the two to sell the cartel's marijuana instead of their own home-grown primo weed. The two independents try to put off the cartel's threat but things become very serious very quickly when the girlfriend of one of the two independents is kidnapped by the cartel who want a one million dollar ransom. The two independents devise various schemes to resist the cartel include using everything from improvised explosive devices to Letterman and Leno masks. In parallel, Winslow also introduces the female leader of the Mexican cartel. The novel details how she deals with rival gangs as well as internal threats. As an alternative to the the million dollars ransom, the two Laguna Beach independents propose a trade that the cartel leader cannot pass up. This novel is notable for Winslow's use of an encyclopedic knowledge of the border drug trade.
The Gentlemen's Hour (2009)
This book is Winslow's sequel his book The Dawn Patrol' and it also features the same recurring character, Boone Daniels, introduced in that first novel. Daniels is a surfer private eye. The story is set again in Daniel's world of the San Diego surfing community. A surfing idol is found brutally and seemingly senselessly murdered. Daniels goes to work for the attorney who is defending the man who confessed to the murder. The supposed murderer is a spoiled rich kid gangbanger wanna-be. Taking on this job alienates Daniels from all of his surfing buddies, except for the one who hires him to follow his wife who he suspects is cheating on him. Daniels soon is caught up in the intricacies of both cases and in the process finds himself hip deep in the seamier side of the California Dream. In the process of his investigations, he ends up exposing secrets that a lot of people are absolutely determined should not see the light of day.
The Dawn Patrol (2008)
In this novel, Winslow introduces San Diego surfer-cum-private investigator Boone Daniels who is typical of the local surfing scene in that he is so laid back that he would rather surf than work. He and his band of surfers are collectively called the Dawn Patrol. They all have real jobs but they all share the same indifference to 'real' life and a craving for beach life. Daniels finds himself in need of some work and takes on a missing person job for a beautiful lawyer. The missing person is a stripper who has shown up missing after having been scheduled to testify in an insurance case. Thing quickly turn sinister when the missing stripper's friend is found dead. Though the death is declared a suicide, Daniels is certain that it is not and that this is death is no coincidence. Following a series of leads, Daniels finds himself among a bevy of shady characters including pedopohiles, plastic surgeons, and Samoan thugs.
The Winter of Frankie Machine (2006)
In this novel, Winslow's main character is an Vietnam vet retired mob hit man also known as Frankie Machine in recognition of his murderous accuracy. As the story begins, Frankie is living a tranquil life in San Diego after having put his 'professional' past behind him. He is happily running a bait shack, legitimately managing three other businesses, and surfing every chance he gets. Frankie comes out of semi-retirement at the request of head of the Los Angeles syndicate. He is asked to help resolve a dispute with the Detroit mob. The situation soon deteriorates to the point where Frankis finds out the story used to draw him back into the 'business' was only a setup and he is the target of a mob hit. He finds himself following a trail of bodies as he tries to figure out which of his past killings has lead to his current predicament. Thanks to his survival skills and street smarts, he manages to evade his killers while pursuing his leads to the source of his dilemma. The world Frankie moves within is one of drugs, dirty politics, and organized crime.
The Power of the Dog (2005)
In this narco-thriller novel, Winslow describes three decades of the international drug trade through the lives of four characters, and some interesting extras, as they off and on cross paths. One main character is a brilliant DEA agent who has a reputation for breaking the rules if he feels it is necessary. His nemesis is an urban but viciously brutal drug dealer. The third is a high-class call girl with a heart of gold. The fourth member of the quartet is a stone-cold mob hit man who wants out of the life. The story begins in 1970s Mesico when the rookie DEA agent first encounters the drug dealer and makes a fatal mistake by his developing a friendship with drug dealer and his brother before he discovers that their uncle is both a member of the Mexican state police and a cartel leader. The resulting vendetta winds its way through the story until the final showdown on the border in 1999.
Looking for a Hero: Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper and the Vietnam War (2004)
with Peter Maslowski
A book about the tragic, short life of Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper. He was the most decorated soldier of the Vietnam War. Maslowski and Winslo describe Hooper's life beginning with his working-class childhood, his somewhat aggressive enthusiasm for athletics, and his decision to join the army because of his uncertain prospects. Hooper ended up in Vietnam in the 101st Airborne and appears to have been born to be an infantryman. They go on to describe Hooper's effectiveness both as an individual and later as a leader in a variety of combat situations. There has been some controversy about Hoopers achievements with some suspicion that the Army may have inflated some of them to cast some a hero's shine onto a hugely unpopular war. The authors provide considerable time and effort to the examination of the controversies regarding Hooper's achievements. The story includes Hooper's postwar life, his bouts with post-traumatic stress and the almost inevitible alcoholism, including his death from alcohol-related causes and burial in Arlington Cemetery. Though considerable criticism is made of the Army's exploitation of Hooper's successes, the story is justifiably shown to be about a hero.
California Fire and Life (1999)
Winslow's fifteen years as an arson investigator give this novel a rich realism. The story is about a surfer-cum-ace arson investigator named Jack Wade. The story begins with Wade sifting through the ashes of a mansion in Orange County. He works for an insurance company and this case is especially gruesome because a young wife and mother was burned to death in the fire. The local, sloppy and possibly corrupt, sheriff's department fire investigator declares that the fire was an accident claiming that the woman was drunk and the fire started from a dropped cigarette. Wade is sceptical of this after meeting the dead-woman's ex-husband, a slick Russian 'entrepreneur' aka mafia head. The woman had a multimillion-dollar life insurance policy. Wade's old girlfriend, a policewoman who was the dead woman's half-sister, finds a link between the Russian mob and a local Vietnamese gang. Things become particularly suspicious when Wade's insurance firm begins to pressure him to settle the insurance claim in favor of the widower. This is despite Wade's finding out that there was no smoke in the dead woman's lungs, that the smoke from the fire was blood red instead of the usual yellow or orange, and that the dog just happened to be outside.
The Death and Life of Bobby Z (1997)
A notorious Laguna Beach surfer-turned-drug dealer Bobby Zacharias aka Bobby Z has not been seen for years. A federal agent decides to take advantage of this to pass off a lookalike to Bobby Z in a hostage switch with a Mexican cartel leader. The Bobby Z double is a career screw-up who is willing to take the deal because it will get him out of prison. The Hell's Angels are after him there and he is desperate. The hostage switch is initially successful and the Bobby Z impersonator finds himself enjoying the fear and respect his false identity gives him. Things completely backfire though because there are a lot of people who want Bobby Z dead. Unable and unwilling to give up his false identity, the imposter finds himself running for his life. Soon it seems like everyone in the world is after the fake Bobby Z and he finds himself on the lamb with the real Bobby's six-year-old son.
Isle of Joy (1996)
This novel is set in late 1950s New York City and the main character is a somewhat tired man who has given the best years of his life to service in the CIA. He has spent his career setting honeytraps and then reeling in the victims. Having just taken early retirement and returned to New York, his hometown, and what he expects to be an easier and safer life as a private investigator. His first job is to act as bodyguard as the girlfriend of a young US Senator who happens to also be a presidential. It seems to be a simple enough job but the young woman is found dead the morning following his first day on the job. This implicates the ex-CIA PI as the prime subject and he is soon taking on the CIA as J. Edgar Hoover's FBI in an effort to clear his name. Of course, the agencies are determined to have the ex-agent take the fall and provide them with an open and shut case. As Withers squirms and works to extricate himself he discovers that he is just another disposable victim in a trap that is rapidly closing in on the young Senator.
While Drowning in the Desert (1995)
This is another of Winslow's slapstick mystery novels featuring his recurring character, the street-wise New Yorker Neal Carey. Carey is taking a driving trip across Nevada with an aging, legendary comedian. The old man is perfectly happy to have the opportunity to perform his vaudeville shtick nonstop during the entire trip. The drive is a favor for the Mob and is being made to return the old man to his California condo. Other than the fact that the old vaudevillian is, at times, a little annoying, what with his seeming to never shut up as well as his occassional disappearances to get laid, the trip seems uneventful. It turns out that he has witnessed an arson and knows the arsonist is waiting for him back home, hence the various diversions he creates to prevent a direct trip home. Then a couple of thugs turn out to be trailing them. The reader knows why but the vaudevillian but he refuses to tell Carey why. One of the trailing thugs is a money-launderer and the other is his dumb Lebanese sidekick. In the midst of all this, Carey is finding himself having to deal with his girlfiriend's ticking biological clock. She wants marriage and motherhood and she wants it now. An additional twist is provided by their pursuit by one of the vaudevillian's old flames. Carey is just about to leave the old man to his own devices when everyone converges for a big dramatic showdown where the women are almost predictably threatened by the unpleasent money launderer and where the old man plays a few cards that no one but he knows about.
A Long Walk Up the Water Slide (1994)
This is another of Winslow's comic crime novels featuring street-wise New Yorker Neal Carey. The story begins with Carey having agreed to hide a Brooklyn woman from the media after. She is prepared to publicly accuse her former boss and lover, a family-TV personality and majority shareholder of the highly successful Family Cable Network, of rape. Carey has taken on this job at the request of the 'Friends of the Family' mob organization that he has some loose ties to and occasionally does work for. The Friends have asked Carey, in addition to keeping the woman out of limelight, to enlist his girlfriend's help in smoothing off some of the Brooklyn woman's rough edges before she reenters the public eye. In the mean time, the TV personality, his wife and their own investors are planning to build on the TV star's reputation to expand into a family-friendly theme park and they are worried that any bad publicity will kill the park's chances of success. In order to remove this variable from the equation. Their investigator, a former government agent, is only one of a group people looking for the Brooklyn woman. In addition, there is a magazine looking for her to offer her a high-profile, high-pay centerfold contract as well as a dangerously cool hired gun whose paymaster is unknown. As chance would have it, everyone converges at Carey's childhood home in Austin, Texas. By this time, the Brooklyn woman has lost the support of the Family because the New Orleans mob is moving in on the TV personality's empire.
Way Down on the High Lonely (1993)
Another of Winslow's comic crime novels featuring street-wise New Yorker Neal Carey. As the story begins, Cary has just returned from a forced stint in a Chinese monastery. Carey and his stepfather work for a discreet, private investigative agency, Friends of the Family, and his boss has asked Carey to bring back a two-year-old boy who has been snatched by his divorced father. The two are in hiding in the wild backcountry of Nevada. As a side job, Carey has also been asked to find out some details, hopefully criminally prosecutable, on the vicious white supremacist organization that the boy's father belongs to. Carey goes undercover, signing on as a cowboy at the ranch of one of the racist locals. Carey ingratiates himself with the sect by representing himself as a fundraiser for the ranch owner. All is not work though and Carey soon finds himself seduced by Nevada ranch life as well as a local teacher. He finds himself hesitant to wind things up and return home. Carey's impatient superiors at the bank rig up a number of scams that go terribly wrong culminating in a grand western-style gunfight.
The Trail to Buddha's Mirror (1992)
Another of Winslow's comic crime novels featuring street-wise New Yorker Neal Carey. Carey is on a sabbatical in Yorkshire, England from his job as an private investigator for the Friends of the Family. He is visited by his mentor who has a favor to ask. He wants Carey to find a scientist. The story is that the scientist is brilliant but lovesick and who has given up his work for love. He disappeared during a conference in San Francisco after falling head over heals for a beautiful Chinese woman. Carey tracks down the couple but is attacked by an unknown assailant and while the couple flees. The near death experience causes Carey to realize that there is more to this than the scientist's work with fertilizers. He follows some leads all the way to China where he discovers the connections to political issues and pursues everything to its surprising conclusion.
A Cool Breeze on the Underground (1991)
Winslow's first novel introduces his recurring character, the street-wise New Yorker Neal Carey. The year is 1976 and Carey is a young graduate student studying 18th-century literature. Carey works on the side for a discreet, private investigative agency, Friends of the Family (i.e., the Mob). The story begins with Carey being given the job assignment of finding a teenage, drug-addicted daughter of a US senator and presidential hopeful. She is known to be somewhere in England but she needs to be back in the US before the Democratic Convention begins and that is only nine weeks away. Carey is able to find the girl but finds getting her home a little tricky. Odd events cause him to suspect that someone from the agency is trying to have him killed. The story is set in late 1970s punk London and it is full of colorful characters, a trait that has become a trademark of Winslow's writing.