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Don Winslow: Broken review - a staggering crash course in the possibilities of crime | reviews, news & interviews

Don Winslow: Broken review - a staggering crash course in the possibilities of crime

Don Winslow: Broken review - a staggering crash course in the possibilities of crime

A brilliantly ranging, complex collection of short crime novels from a master of the genre

Don Winslow, one of the finest crime writers today© Robert Gallagher

One of the masters of both mystery and thriller, Don Winslow’s latest volume is a reading bonanza: a collection of six crime-focused short novels (‘novellas’ feels too fancy for a writer so unpretentious) that riffs off the genre with technical virtuosity, building to a staggering immersion in the possibilities of the form. It’s a hugely enjoyable crash course in the chameleon-like possibilities of crime; a whizz of a read.

Winslow is a writer with extraordinary range. He is best known for his epic trilogy on the Mexican drugs war, twenty years in the making, that he concluded this year. The Power of the Dog, The Cartel and The Border take in the corruption, violence, horror and appalling human cost of the fraught conflict between Mexico, its drug sellers, and the United States, its affluent and ignorant neighbour, a nation of addicts. Winslow’s ostensible topic is the knife-edge between criminal and lawful conduct. He has also written an extraordinary series of novels centred on surfer sleuth Boone Daniels and his cronies in Southern California: flawed characters who hunt bad guys. “The Dawn Patrol” and “The Gentleman’s Hour” are titles that give something of the flavour. Then, there’s his huge novel about the police in New York: The Force. A proverbial page-turner, heart-breaking, mordantly illuminating, hinging on temptation and corruption, yet irradiated by its characters’ attempts to transcend their circumstances.

Broken cover by Don Winslow

Winslow’s writing is fuelled by anger, fury, cynicism and amusement at the mess that people make. Even when his scale is miniature, as with the short novels in Broken, his scope encompasses the complex evils and flashes of good in modern society, dealing in ambiguity and uncertainty. The titles of the novels in the new collection are characteristic: succinct, atmospheric, in sequence they form a prose poem: “Broken”, “Crime 101” (dedicated to Steve McQueen), “The San Diego Zoo” (written in homage to Elmore Leonard), “Sunset” (after Raymond Chandler) “Paradise” and “The Last Ride”. The stories themselves: meaningful and memorable.

“Broken” is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Its tense, typically for Winslow, is the historical present. It follows a drug squad, each member delineated and all of them out to take down a boat carrying methamphetamine (a first for the team). We also meet a police family: McNabb brothers Danny and Jimmy and their mother, Eva, a 911 dispatcher. “Broken” indicates the condition that comes for the cops who make it out of policing: broken because of what they’ve seen and what they do. As the avenging cop becomes the monster he is hunting down, the story twists into something savage, terrible, horribly believable and unputdownable. Yet what Winslow does here, and in the stories that follow, is somehow make you believe in the characters and their world, although it could not be further from the direct experience of his readers. The tales are jammed with information, painlessly conveyed.

“Crime 101” takes the point of view of the perpetrator, following the criminal’s first belief that laws are made to be broken, with rules that are made to be followed. On the Pacific Coast Highway that hugs the ocean south-north in California, a lone operator known as Davis (who thinks Steve McQueen was the coolest man on the planet) is working the jewellery shops up and down the axis of Highway 101. He dresses as he fancies McQueen would, and drives cars McQueen might have chosen. He picks on courier Ben Haddad the one time he is carrying millions between rich La Jolla outside San Diego and another boutique in Del Mar, in a seemingly foolproof and bloodless crime. It’s a high-level jewellery heist with no violence – and there have been 11 in four years. But cop Lou Lubesnick, head of the robbery unit, won’t be fooled: he’s convinced that the robberies have a pattern and are devised by a single intelligence. The tale that follows is curiously lighthearted: the story of the end of a highly intelligent criminal career, with some arcane McQueen-bonding thrown in, not to mention close attention to Hitchcock’s romantic thriller To Catch a Thief.

“San Diego Zoo”, the next story, is laugh-out-loud stuff. It focuses on a zoo escapee: a chimp armed with a revolver. Elmore Leonard is, of course, the dedicatee. Chris Shea is the reluctant but decent, accident-prone policeman in charge, and Lou Lubesnick, our hero from previous novel, turns up too. In a hilarious take on San Diego, Balboa Park and policing, the short novel’s themes are silo mentality, Youtube, Twitter and dating.

“Sunset” is for “Mr. Raymond Chandler” (in more ways than one). Rebellious, cynical elder Duke Kasmajian, sixty-five getting smaller in his rearview mirror, has a heart condition (hence the unlit cigar). He’s a San Diego legend, made his fortune as a bail bondsman (all is explained) and gives away huge sums in hidden philanthropies. A ruthless drinker of Scotch, listener to vinyl and connoisseur of Cool School Pacific Jazz, he is also, of course, a poker player. He’s a character, but don’t be fooled. Surfer Boone Daniels turns up, as does Dawn Patrol and legendary addict and surfer Terry Maddux. In his third appearance, Lou Lubesnick returns, too. Every sentence is an easy aphorism and wisecracks are plentiful. But the story is also heavy on atmosphere, and there’s tragedy, too.

“Paradise” starts in Hawaii. A trio of twenty-somethings, O, Ben and Chon, who were the focus of an earlier novel, Savages, are cultivating weed in grow houses, second-generation dope dealers looking to expand their business from California. But surfers at heart, the naïve trio comes up against The Company, controllers of Hawaii’s drug trade. It does not end well: as native goes head to head with newcomer, the light-hearted prose unfolds a ruthless and terrifying tale, predicated on heartlessness, various riffs on family alliances of all kinds, about how to surf the wave and survive – or not. Amid intermittent hilarity and some excruciating puns, it is a heartbreaking, sad and terrible story, in which villains almost triumph, and the ones we really like just squeak through. Against the waves of Hawaii, the almost-innocent leave this earthly garden of Eden.

The final story is all too appropriately titled “The Last Ride”. Centred on the barren land around El Paso in West Texas, this brilliantly idiomatic, unbearably sad tale is an honest account of the horrors legally visited on the old, the sick, the young and the vulnerable on the Mexico-Texas border, as well as the violence heaped by Mexican human-traffickers. Its portrait is of a crushing world, but the struggling Cal, a decent Border guard, is a surprising beacon of goodness. He intervenes to help a traumatised six-year-old girl, becoming desperately involved in the attempt to reunite the mute Luz with her mother, already deported to Salvador. He manages a miracle, but at high cost.

These novels are about America now, and each of Winslow’s stories is satisfyingly complex: not always redemptive, but clear in its trajectory. The good guys often get hurt. Acute in its observations, the collection asks to be savoured slowly: each of the six has a short word count, but a long reach. This review is really a fan letter. Just read.

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