I've long been an admirer of Don Winslow's crime fiction. One of the things I like about his work is that, no matter how light or entertaining his novels appear to be, one comes away from them having learned something. For example, California Power and Light is a veritable degree course in fire insurance investigation. I've used bits of information gleaned from that book on a number of occasions. While in Power of the Dog- one of the best crime novels to appear over the last two decades- you learn pretty much everything you need to know about Mexican drug cartels and their relationship to law enforcement in the US and south of the border.
Which brings me to Savages. I was really looking forward to this one, having heard it combined his two prime subjects- surfers/slackers and Mexican drug cartels. That it does, and even though it noir to the core, I was disappointed. Savages centers on two guys- one a hardcore, former soldier, the other a green-minded son of two psychotherapists- who make a very good living producing and selling high quality weed, until, that is, they run afoul of the Mexican drug cartel. They have an off and on menage-a-trois with a young woman, not quite an airhead but not far from being one. The head of the cartel- a woman with a daughter not unlike the young woman living with our two drug dealers- wants to horn in on the action of our two protagonists. Of course, she has to watch her back when it comes to rivals within the cartel. Nothing wrong with the plot or the politics of the novel. The problem comes with the way both are executed. Because, for me, Savages came across as a comic-book version of Winslow's two favorite concerns, and ends up being far too lightweight and frivolous, when compared with Power of the Dog. Moreover, it lacks the informative background material I have to expect from Winslow's fiction.
There's also the matter of Winslow writing style which I have also long admired, particularly his use of short, cryptic chapters, that can sometimes seem like something close to poetry. But in Savages he uses that style throughout the book, mixed with a vocabulary which mirrors and often mocks his characters. Not that Savages isn't entertaining- I read it on the train from London to Paris, which made the trip pass in no time at all- but I expected more from the novel. Still, I'm not going to let one disappointing novel put me off reading him in the future. I hope Savages is simply Winslow biding his time before he drops his next epic novel on his readers.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.