As important as Don Winslow’s convoluted plots are to his work, his novels are first and foremost studies of intriguing characters from both sides of the law and from all gradations in between. His well-trained (and somewhat jaundiced) eye has the ability to spot telling physical clues that help reveal personality, and his ear catches subtle nuances and rhythms of conversation. Winslow is particularly adept at portraying a character’s angst and giving voice to innermost thoughts, often tinged with terse, ironic, self-deprecating understatement. Even the best characters are severely flawed, and the worst have redeeming features.
Winslow’s early novels (beginning with A Cool Breeze on the Underground) all concern freelance private investigator Neal Carey and the bizarre cases he is enlisted to undertake. These are told in the third person rather than the usual first person used for detective novels, giving the author the ability to jump from character to character as necessary to present information the protagonist alone would not know, thus increasing suspense. Though violence plays a role in these books, it takes a backseat to the generally lighthearted presentation of madcap adventures fraught with multiple, humorous complications and of an assortment of types of usually believable people who either want something or want to prevent others from achieving something. Winslow’s growing maturity as a writer is evident from book to book, as characters become more sharply drawn, dialogue grows terser, and the prose style becomes leaner—all of which combine to make pacing more consistent, resulting in increased tension throughout.
Later nonseries novels take a darker tone while keeping Winslow’s strengths—character portrayal, dialogue, and twisty plots—intact. Protagonists in these novels, unlike Neal Carey, who though laid-back is nonetheless heroic, are more complex and contradictory. For example, Walter Withers, an alcoholic private eye of questionable morality in A Long Walk Up the Water Slide (1994), commits various dubious acts while battling both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the KGB in the course of protecting an ambitious politician in Isle of Joy (1996), a thriller set in the 1950’s against the paranoia of the Cold War. The central character in The Death and Life of Bobby Z (1997) is born loser Tim Kearney—sentenced to life for killing a member of the Hell’s Angels and surrounded by vengeful imprisoned bikers—who is given the chance to win his freedom by impersonating a missing drug kingpin named Bobby Zacharias (“Bobby Z”). Crack arson investigator Jack Wade from California Fire and Life lost his job as a police officer for beating a confession out of a felon. Former CIA operative and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Art Keller in The Power of the Dog constantly breaks rules in his pursuit of justice and is especially unconcerned about legal issues in his devotion to the destruction of Mexican drug lord Tio Barrea, a former police officer whose ascent Keller unwittingly aided by eliminating his rivals. Protagonist Frank Machianno, in The Winter of Frankie...
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