Monday, 4 October 2010

The Gentleman's Hour; the easy-going second novel

The Gentleman's Hour isn't Don Winslow's second novel, or even anything close to it, but it's his second novel about Boone Daniels, a surf bum who makes the little money he actually needs by occasionally doing private investigations. The first book, The Dawn Patrol, was a genial follow up to the much more tense The Winter of Frankie Machine. Although I'm not sure that this was the plan at the outset, the three books form a loose trilogy about the surfing community in San Diego. Winslow writes about the scene with real affection, and he's constructed a wonderful cast of recurring characters who wander through the action, though by the time we've got to the end of The Gentleman's Hour, it's pushing it a bit to call what's happening action.

The Southern Californian private eye story is one of the oldest continuing traditions in crime fiction, and Winslow is particularly true to one of Chandler's great themes, which could almost be described as the shaggy detective story. Chandler took it to almost absurd lengths in The Long Goodbye; halfway through it I gave up waiting for the plot to make sense and just settled down to enjoying the ride. Winslow's got a wonderful easygoing style which lets him away with a lot of digression and blind alleys, and this is just as well, because the book ultimately doesn't hang together properly.

It does, however, provide me with a convenient peg to talk about a recurring character in modern detective fiction, the criminal who owes the hero a big favour. It's like a diabolus ex machina, and it's getting a bit old as a narrative trick. It's not as pervasive as the weirdly skilful sidekick (Harlan Coben really took that one right over the edge of parody in the Bolitar novels, but it's as old as Parker's Spenser books and the second most annoying character in them, Hawk) but they could both do with being put out to pasture.

In Dawn Patrol, the hero's villain buddy thing was done quite well, since he was part of the plot. And nailing the villain buddy, and the collateral damage which might follow for Boone's wider circle of friends, was a major emotional hook in the plot. Boone's buddy was a bad person, who turned out to be a lot worse than Boone had thought. He'd corrupted one of the people Boone really looked up to, and Boone's biggest problem was bringing the villain to justice knowing that he was going to shaft not just a villain who needed shafting, but people who didn't deserve it. The Dawn Patrol resolves all the problems of its main characters in a satisfying and believable way, and Winslow probably should have drawn a line under Boone and his friends at that point and moved on to a fresh cast for a third book. He'd done just that moving from Frankie Machine to Boone Daniels, so it's not as though he couldn't have pulled it off.

Instead he stuck with Boone and his buddies, and in a way I don't blame them. They're great company. As Boone falls further and further into a maze of blind alleys and dead ends, I was perfectly happy wandering along after him, just as clueless as he was, but enjoying the show. Unfortunately, all books come to an end, and the Gentleman's Hour has to wrap up the plot. And it turns out that all the blind alleys and distractions are connected. This is a terrible idea; the book would have worked much better as a mess, which I know is a stupid thing to say about detective fiction. This isn't the really annoying bit; the really annoying bit is the hero's villain buddy Red Eddie, who I suspect you think I had lost track of there. I hadn't. He's managed to stay out of jail and in business since the end of the Dawn Patrol, though he's got an ankle tag and a pending trial for drug dealing and people trafficking and the lord knows what all. Despite the fact that this is all Boone's fault, Boone has also saved both Red Eddie and earlier Red Eddie's kid from drowning. So Red Eddie owes Boone, and isn't going to kill him for all this inconvenience. And this ought to be a much bigger deal than it is in the book; it somehow doesn't carry the right weight. And this isn't of trivial importance, because as the books draws to a close, Boone gets right in over his head, and is stuck with no escape and the prospect of a grisly death. And I'm wondering how the hell he's going to get out of it, when two of Red Eddie's thugs show up and just plug all the bad guys, because Red Eddie heard about the fact that Boone's been marked for death and decided he couldn't let it happen. Somehow, this all feels too cheap and easy, and it ruined the ending of the book for me.

In better news, Winslow's taken a break from San Diego's surf scene for his next book, and it looks like a return to the tighter form of his earlier work. While you're waiting for Savages to come out in affordable paperback, check out California Fire and Life and The Power of the Dog, two unrelentingly grim and powerful books which show just how good Winslow can be when he gets serious. And they'll tee you up nicely for Frankie Machine and Dawn Patrol, which are not really at all grim, but carry a nice balance of fear and fun like a good episode of TV. A very good episode. The Gentleman's Hour might have been Winslow taking it all a little bit too easy, but Winslow taking it easy is a lot better than most people's working at it.

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