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Let’s play “True Confessions.”
I’ve never read a detective novel before.
I’ve seen quite a few detective films, though I suspect that if I listed them, you’d tell me that they weren’t the good ones. I read comics without regard for genre and so more than a few crime graphic novels rest on my shelf next to biographies of famous scientists and strips about brick-throwing mice.
Upon deciding to read and review Don Winslow’s The Gentlemen’s Hour, I knew with a cold fear that I wasn’t going to be able to dazzle you with my comparisons to Raymond Chandler or my contrasts to Sir Conan Doyle. All I have to offer are my impressions.
Color me impressed. The Gentlemen’s Hour is a damn good book. I’d have to read a few more of Winslow’s books to confirm my suspicions that he’s also a damn good writer but probably not very many.
Boone Daniels is a surfer who works, as often as circumstances demand, as a private investigator. There are just enough dangling threads from a previous novel to suggest that Daniels’ reluctance to engage in his vocation is only half an outward expression of his surfer ethos. The other half is composed of a reasonable aversion to life-threatening situations met with a reluctance to confront the throng of deceptions and little failures that make up the world outside of his carefully arranged paradise out on the waves.
But, as the book opens, the surf is anything but up. Boone’s ex-girlfriend, Sunny, has left for a well-deserved ride as a career surfer. The old rules that have governed the scene since The Dawn Patrol, his rag-tag band of loveable badasses, first arrived have begun to erode. The recent murder of a much-beloved local icon by a young surf punk has everyone, including Boone, questioning the foundations of their shared life and experiences on the beaches of San Diego.
For those whose awareness of the surfer culture begins with the Beach Boys and hasn’t been refreshed since Pointbreak, The Gentlemen’s Hour is a thoughtful reboot. Its cultural memory stretches back to the second World War and gently guides the reader to the modern day where Buddhist ethics, turf wars, ecological turmoil, mixed martial arts and white supremacy rest uneasily side-by-side.
Like the waves it often turns to for metaphor, the story relishes in hiding beneath the surface, slowly building power until neither reader nor protagonist can hope to escape its momentum and must decide whether to ride or bail as it careens towards a crashing finish. As coyly as he pieces it together, it is impossible not to see the process aspects of the story being assembled as Winslow sketches out Boone’s persona – a reluctant PI forced into his current role by a blown case in his previous life as a policeman that continues to haunt him.
Winslow’s understanding of his characters’ motivations and how they shape the action that unfolds rings true throughout. The rich plot is unlocked one layer at a time by people making difficult but understandable decisions that add flesh with each twist to the skeletal archetypes they inhabit at its beginning. It is a rare moment in the book when the author is forced into lengthy exposition to make you understand someone.
Dialogue exchanges, especially between surfers, is often reduced to monosyllabic grunts hard-coded with intricate meanings that must be unpacked through context. While the lingo sits a bit silly on the page at times, it’s really no more of a stretch than the hyper-dramatized dialogue of film noir and it’s to Winslow’s credit that it co-exists ably in the story alongside the language of judicial process and capitalist excess. The sum is a complex world where unlikely allies and enemies are drawn into one believable tapestry by their connections to one another.
By the book’s end, it’s a satisfying world – one that meets the smell test of reality – and one that doesn’t linger any longer than is necessary. Not all of the endings are happy but one is left with the sense that those characters who survived were made stronger from their experiences. For many folks, that’s the hallmark of good storytelling and, fueled by Winslow’s snappy writing, the total package is tough to disparage.