Book of the Month: California Fire & Life


Cover of Don Winslow's California Fire and Life

I vaguely recall a poster for Natural Born Killers that looked almost identical to this

Bloody Predictable Or What?

That Don Winslow, what a bastard. Just when you thought you were free of him, along comes another brutally compelling book to sink you for a day. I don’t think you really appreciate compulsion in an author until you’ve got a Winslow in your hands. They’re like a race. Once you start you’re committed. You just have to continue reading, even if it’s 4am, even if your eyes start feeling like they’re being grated, no make that have already been grated and you’re using just the stubby end bits of your optic nerve to tear meaning from the pages. It’s that satisfyingly painful.

Knowledge Is Power

Steve McQueen once said, ‘I don’t want to be the guy who learns, I want to be the guy who knows’, and Winslow obviously knows. Everything he writes is suffused with knowledge, places, people, cultures. Once you start reading you start believing. Not just that he’s been there, but that you are there. I once had a friend who was fixated on Lovejoy books (crap antique dealer as mystery solver drivel) because they came away from each book having learned something. Coming away from one of Winslow’s you don’t feel like you’ve learned something as much as been there and experienced it for real, that it’s as much a part of your life as it is part of his characters’. Whether it’s the surf culture of the West Coast, the Mexamerican drug cartels or the mysteries of the insurance investigation process, you come out of a Winslow feeling like you’ve been there, done that, got the expertise.

Unlike so many crime writers Winslow doesn’t pack his pages full of action, they’re not frantic races around seemingly arbitrary destination points. Neither are they filled with ever more bloodthirsty victim porn, with crimes ramped up to ridiculously sadistic levels to satisfy readers’ lusts. Instead there’s background, depth and character. Winslow’s heroes are true American heroes. They are the men who know, whose knowledge and commitment places them to the side of society, half outcasts through their own expertise.

California Fire & Life burns with arson, murder, revenge and a justifiable contempt for property developers. It’s a tale of playing and being played, of international crime and local intrigue and down at the end a smoldering passion. It will light you up in a second.

Over on the East Coast, David Simon pulled together some of the best modern American crime writers, men like George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and Ed Burns, and came up with The Wire, simply the most real TV show I’ve seen. If he was doing a West Coast version his first stop would be Don Winslow.

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Book of the Month: The Power of the Dog


Cover of Don Winslow's The Power Of The Dog

Crazy title, great book

In a world full of drugs, where obsessed readers gorge down on Lee Child, Michael Connolly and James Ellroy like they were amphetamine coated candy pops, discovering Don Winslow is like getting your first sniff of crack cocaine. It’s fast, it’s all encompassing and when you’ve finished voraciously cramming The Power of the Dog down you just can’t wait to get another hit.

This is a two and a half day book, which isn’t to say it’s short, just that it’s compulsive. You’re totally hooked on Don’s decades long epic on the rise and fall of the Mexican cocaine cartels and the attempts of the authorities to put them out of business. There’s corruption a-plenty along with lashings of claret and more containerloads of coke than you can shake a nosespoon at.

But it’s not the subject matter that’s so compelling as much as it is Don’s ability to craft real, believable characters, each of whom speaks with a wholly unique, identifiable voice. You sympathise with each of them, whatever their status, and their hopes, ambitions and fears all seem thoroughly real. In this way it reminds me of Ellroy’s LA Confidential, a grand, sprawling behemoth of a novel that interlinks story after story into a powerful narrative that evokes both time and place and gives you a sense of really being there in amongst the action.

This is one of those books you just devour and, having finally consumed it, immediately want to  begin again if only to recapture the sensation of reading it once more. Depending on your character, you’re torn between immediately lending it out to your very best friend so they can share the experience and never mentioning it to anyone and hoarding it all for yourself.  I’m of the former disposition and have already lent it and by god I’m almost regretting it. There’s only one thing left to do and that’s to get stuck into all Don’s other work. Like crack, one dose is not enough.

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