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Surfing shamus

A wave-riding P.I. is on the case in Don Winslow's new novel, whose action hugs the SoCal coast but etches a wide world.

June 09, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

WAVES breaking just a few feet away, the detective novelist Don Winslow was sitting on the patio of a Laguna Beach cafe with a view of the ocean below, looking like a private eye trying to avoid detection. A compact, wiry man whose intense green eyes flashed under a baseball cap, Winslow, 54, was talking about the strip of the coast that runs from San Diego through southern Orange County.

"What I think is emerging is a different kind of society," said Winslow, "based on the amazing ethnic variety. San Diego County no longer has any ethnic majority. Look around you," he said, pointing across the diners, most of them digging into fish tacos, who included a mix of Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino and Caucasian.

"It's also developing its own language, with little bits of Hawaiian and Filipino and Spanish, especially when you mix the language of surf culture, which has always been fun to me," he continued. "I wanted to write in that new language, about that new scene."

Winslow's new novel, "The Dawn Patrol," is set in that milieu, with a Japanese cop nicknamed Johnny Banzai, a Hawaiian drug mogul named Red Eddie, a collection of migrant workers from Mexico and a cast of Anglos that includes the macho strip-club owner Dan Silver and the uptight lawyer Petra Hall. Although the story never gets more than a few miles from the ocean, it spans a wide world, indeed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
Surf writer: An article in the Monday Calendar section about detective novelist Don Winslow said that another writer who works in the same surfing milieu, Kem Nunn, became nationally known after his novel "John From Cincinnati" was turned into an HBO series. While Nunn was a co-creator, co-executive producer and a writer on the television series "John From Cincinnati," none of his novels has that title or was adapted for the series.

The book's core is a collection of five friends who, despite working jobs that sometimes bring them into conflict with each other, meet at sunrise each morning to take the early waves as the Dawn Patrol. Among them is Boone Daniels, an ex-cop with a beat-up van who runs a private-investigation office above a surf shop.

Echoes of McGee

BESIDES the setting, the book has little in common with the often brooding "surf-noir" novels of Kem Nunn. A cult figure for years, Nunn became nationally known after his novel "John From Cincinnati" was turned into a (short-lived) HBO series, directed by David Milch. Daniels is more a West Coast equivalent of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, the beach-bum P.I. who lived on a Fort Lauderdale houseboat.

"The Dawn Patrol" -- which could be a breakthrough for Winslow, who has garnered praise from James Ellroy and Ian Rankin without becoming well known -- seems an inevitable step for the journeyman writer who's about a decade into a career setting noir novels in Southern California. And though he's lived for the last few years in the ranch country an hour inland from San Diego, the book was a way for this swamp Yankee to get back to his love of surfing and the sea.

With its short chapters, comic characters, hairpin plot turns and snappy dialogue, the novel can feel at times lighter than air. But it includes a considerable amount of violence, a heartbreaking subplot and its share of sleazy characters.

"One reason I find SoCal so interesting is that there's so much beauty -- and that's real," Winslow said. "But there's another layer underneath it that's not so pretty. One thing I wanted to do was run those two tracks simultaneously -- without backing off of either."

Making of a storyteller

WINSLOW'S hometown, next to the Rhode Island fishing village of Matunuck, was the kind of place where poverty was close -- if you don't study hard, parents used to tell their kids, you'll be sweeping fish guts off the plant floor.

But he retains an affection for those years as well: Winslow calls a "khaki-collar" upbringing -- he's the son of a Navy noncom father who was "a great raconteur" and a librarian mother who encouraged him to read widely -- the best possible preparation to become a writer.

His parents would rent a lakeside cottage for a month each summer, inviting his dad's Navy friends to come visit as long as they would toss aside any privilege of rank.

"You'd wake up and there would be five sailors on the floor, and there were scuba divers and Marines and Navy nurses. So you had these storytellers around you. I learned very early that if I was quiet and kind of hid, they'd pretend not to know I was there. So I had these stories from around the world -- and I always thought it would be the best thing in the world to be, if I could, to be a storyteller. But it was a bit of a long and winding road to get there."

Winslow moved to New York in the late '70s to help a friend manage a series of movie theaters as a way to finance his literary ambitions.

When the theater job fell through, he turned to something that offered, at least, a steady paycheck. He became a private investigator, working in the back alleys off Times Square -- "you'd think you were walking on seashells, but they were crack vials" -- and busting pickpockets in movie theaters. That, he said, was fun, but it didn't seem to be leading anywhere.

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