The Dawn Patrol
by Don Winslow
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
320 pages, 2008
Under a Perfect Sun
Reviewed by Cameron Hughes
I’m hoping The Dawn Patrol changes things for Don Winslow, that this is a huge success, and that he is hereafter mentioned in the same breath as modern giants such as Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos, because this new book is one of the best private eye novels I’ve read in years.
Boone Daniels used to be a cop. Now he’s a surfer in San Diego, California, obsessively checking how high the waves are and tracking where the epic swells will be on any given day. To support this habit, he does the bare minimum of work necessary, as a P.I. Life seems pretty darn good for Boone Daniels and his surfer buddies on “the Dawn Patrol.” So why is Daniels’ bank account empty? And why does he now spend countless nights trying to find the suspected rapist and killer of a 6-year-old girl -- a case that got cold fast when he was on the San Diego Police Department and refused to torture information out of the favored suspect?
This is a novel chock-a-block with hidden secrets and depths, and Winslow lets you know that right off the bat when he introduces the members of his Patrol by their nicknames only. Other than Daniels, we have Hang Twelve, Dave the Love God, Sunny Day, High Tide and an occasional comrade known as Red Eddie. Don’t you dare let anyone spoil the fun by telling you ahead of time what these names mean. Even their group’s appellation -- and this book’s title -- has a second, darker meaning.
Everyone has a secret and a convoluted past in this tale. The Dawn Patrol is made up of functioning societal rejects, including a former Samoan gang leader and a Japanese cop who struggles with living as an American, while respecting his historic culture. They’re parts of a well-drawn cast and Winslow uses them all to great effect. There are no small roles in The Dawn Patrol.
The story starts off simply enough. A striking female lawyer named Petra Hall, who represents a powerful law firm in San Diego, hires Boone to find a missing stripper, Tamara Roddick, who witnessed her boss engage in some insurance shenanigans of the arson variety. Boone figures he can locate Roddick, get her on the witness stand to testify, and then get back to the beach in time for a big swell promising huge waves that come only every few years. Things begin to get complicated, though, when a woman is found dead by a motel pool with the mislaid Ms. Roddick’s identification in her possession. Was the decedent pushed, or did she fall? And was the stripper Boone is looking for the intended victim?
From that point in the novel, we’re off, with Winslow leading us rapidly through a succession of intriguing episodes that take place on beautiful stretches of sand and in much darker places where evil events occur -- events such as the children of illegal aliens being smuggled into Southern California for more than just borderline slavery. People don’t like to talk about such uncomfortable things, but author Winslow knows they go on and is willing to explore them in his fiction. He peels back the layers, revealing the corrupted soul of a city -- San Diego -- that’s paying the price for paradise.
One of the reasons I love crime fiction is because it exposes the “real truths” about the world. I read nearly everything in the genre, but I am drawn especially to private detective fiction -- America’s modern westerns. One man or woman, or sometimes a small group of people, dig and poke around in places where they’re considerably less than welcome. A great P.I. novel shines a bright light on the injustices of the world.
Don’t think that The Dawn Patrol is a grim novel, though, that the sun doesn’t shine on Winslow’s yarn. It’s an awfully funny novel, really, though not in a slapsticky or forced respect. Much of the humor comes through in the way members of the Dawn Patrol interact with each other, whether they’re discussing which cartoon character they’d sleep with, why Betty Rubble would be a great catch, or their ever-changing rundown of Things That Are Good:
My own favorite comedic moment in these pages comes when Hang Twelve attacks the buffet table at a strip club and eats a heroically large amount of strip club grub. Afterward, everyone in the joint bets on when he’ll barf and what will come out first.
It’s elements such as this that give The Dawn Patrol personality. It really feels as if these people have known each other for ages. Making relationships come off as authentic and sincere is tough, even for the most experienced writer. All of this makes me wish Winslow’s characters really were alive, so I could head down to the beach and chill along with them. I really want to flirt with girls, with Dave the Love God at my side. I want Boone Daniels to teach me how to surf. I want to ogle Sunny Day. I want to attend their fish taco beach parties.
As Lawrence Block does with New York City and George Pelecanos does with Washington, D.C., Don Winslow makes San Diego a living and breathing part of his cast, presenting it fairly. Though seemingly a city under a perfect sun, Winslow shows how poisonous and tarnished it can be. He takes careful care to give each neighborhood and part of the metropolis a personality, from the increasingly dangerous (at night) Pacific Beach to the stuck-in-1975 Ocean Beach. He even throws in a few fun facts only a local would know. (There is a street in Pacific Beach called Garnet, named after the gemstone. Locals pronounce it wrong, saying Gar-Nett. If said correctly, you’re immediately pegged as a tourist.) Crammed full with references to real-life restaurants and bars (including Jeff’s Burgers, a legendary surfer diner), The Dawn Patrol offers an exceptionally vital depiction of California’s second biggest city. Los Angeles and San Francisco are incredibly over-used cities in this genre, so it’s refreshing that San Diego has been thrust onto the crime fiction map with such roaring ferocity.
The historical influences on this story are obvious, if you have a working knowledge of the genre. Think The Rockford Files, Travis McGee (only without with John D. MacDonald’s outdated views on women) and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 (if only because Winslow’s story is as much an ensemble drama as it is about Boone). Unlike many works of fiction, in which a writer copies the style and feel of a favorite author, Winslow throws everything into a blender, hits HIGH and manages to come away with a voice all his own.
This isn’t a terribly long book, at just over 300 pages. But it’s long enough that, in another wordsmith’s hands -- one with a lesser talent for the economics of prose and pacing -- it might have been a slog to get through. Winslow has such a breezy and engaging narrative voice that the pages just whiz by; I was actually left wishing that I had more to read, but also pleased that the author didn’t drag his narrative out to the point where it ceased to be interesting. And Winslow accomplishes his storytelling velocity without sacrificing plot, character or genuine drama. That’s a real treat, dear readers.
I’m not saying this novel is perfect. Winslow’s love of history shows through frequently, whether he’s talking about the pasts of San Diego and the Pacific Coast Highway, or the heritage of northern San Diego strawberry fields. His historic references feel a bit indulgent at times, but they’re rarely dull (with the possible exception of all that information about the berry fields).
And I grew weary after a time of repeated slang terms such as “bra” and “braddah,” but they don’t jar the narrative overmuch. Winslow’s prose sounds like what Raymond Chandler might have given us, had he been a beach-bum surfer. Still, readers not familiar with all the surfing allusions and the arcane language of boarders might get tripped up occasionally.
In the end, The Dawn Patrol straddles that delicate line between commercial mainstream fiction and a genuine piece of art. It’s like a pop song that sounds cheery and bright, but if you listen closely, you’ll find darkness clinging to the words. The Beach Boys were brilliant at offering up that same sort of thing. I can’t wait for the return of Boone Daniels and the Dawn Patrol. When and if their next outing appears in print, give me the book quick and then don’t bother me for a while. I’ll be reading.
Don’t miss this novel, whatever you do. | July 2008