The Reading Chair: “Broken” by Don Winslow

Opening a Don Winslow book is like opening a box full of angry lions. While most other noir and crime writers growl and snarl from the back of their teeth, Winslow sweeps a paw of outrage, passion and drama across the page. At their best, his books roar with passionate energy.

They’re often agit-prop novels, an approach I don’t favor with fiction, but his narratives are so driven, with tremendous pacing and flair for capturing character and action in a few brushstrokes, that I feel obliged to lie down and let him run me over anyway.

The latest of his twenty books, Broken (William Morrow) is a change-up from his “Cartel” epics (which deal with America’s failed drug war). Here he offers six crime novellas set in across a wide range of American settings, among them Hawaii, Southern California, and the Tex-Mex border. They vary in quality but the cumulative impact is strong, sometimes funny and, in the last story, deeply wrenching.

First up is the title story, “Broken”: A New Orleans cop takes bloody revenge on a Cartel kingpin who, new in town, violates the local custom of not murdering the police just because they annoy him. It’s a loud story, packed with furious, bone-crunching melodrama that seems to strain for effect. To me, it was the least of the collection due to a tone of huff-and-puff machismo better suited to Dirty Harry. Winslow swings his hammer a little too much for me here.

Things pick up though with the next three novellas, with each one dedicated to a crime fiction legend. “Crime 101,” dedicated to actor Steve McQueen, is an amusing lark inspired by The Thomas Crown Affair, a classic 1960s heist film. It spins a charming tale about a jewel thief — shiny with McQueen cool — and his one last job before packing away his burglar tools. The novella also introduces us to schlubby Lou Lubesnick, a cousin to Inspector Columbo, to provide comic contrast.

“San Diego Zoo” is dedicated to Elmore Leonard but I also sense a strong debt to Carl Hiassen and Donald Westlake. I don’t think of Winslow as a comic writer any more than I would Eugene O’Neill, but he shows he has the chops in this romp about the misadventures of a San Diego cop who faces down a pistol-packing chimpanzee. While also flinging woo at a zookeeper, he tracks down the fools who armed the chimp. It’s a big grin throughout and worth your twenty dollars.

Raymond Chandler is the dedicatee for “Sunset,” though, apart from its melancholy tone and SoCal setting, I found little of Chandler in it. I did, however, find more of Joe Gores, who wrote a series of procedurals about bail bonds-people and repomen back in the last century. It’s still an exciting cat-and-mouse yarn about a bondsman and his team’s pursuit of a bail jumper through the back beaches of the California surf scene. Winslow, a passionate surfer, captures this scene with vivid detail and whip-cracking excitement. (This one also features Lou Lubesnick whom I’d like to see more of.) Winslow’s gumshoes seem better at detective work than Phillip Marlowe ever was.

Both the Hawaiian marijuana and surf scenes provide the undertow for “Paradise.” Here, some mainland weedgrowers try to set up shop on Kaua’i Island, only to face murderous competition from the native locals who have had enough with high-handed mainlanders. Unfortunately, a very obvious deus ex machina floats in to save the day. You can see almost see his wings and chariot.

“The first time he saw the child, she was in a cage.”

With those bitter terse lines opens “The Last Ride,” indeed the last and the best (alongside the “San Diego Zoo,” its complete opposite). Two guards at one of the child concentration/detention camps now operating under our flag along the Texas/Mexican border, find they’re unable to live with the crimes happening under their watch. One of them, Cal, a local descendant of pioneer ranchers, finally takes heroic action leading to great personal sacrifice. It’s a hard-hitting story of conscience and consequence and a fitting conclusion to this collection. The saddest thing about this deeply distressing story is that those who need to read it most of all will likely not.

Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” will appear in the upcoming anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, 2020). He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller, which was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character)! His contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

The author of BUTCHERTOWN, a 1920s gangster thriller and DRAGON’S ARK, a contemporary Dracula tale, both published through Ambler House Publishing.

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