If you’ve read only a few of Don Winslow’s books, you may not realize what a shape-shifter he is. His bravura Cartel trilogy, with its 40-year wingspan and brutally detailed knowledge of Mexican drug gangs, isn’t much like his darkly hilarious “Savages,” which itself barely shows how deeply his early books were rooted in California’s surf culture. All they share is indelible bite.
“Whatever happened to morality?” Winslow had a character in “Savages” ask. The reply: “Replaced by a newer, faster, easier technology.”
Winslow has now delivered a collection of six novellas that show off his range. It’s called “Broken,” after the first (and weakest) story in the bunch. A better title might have come from the next one, “Crime 101” — an elegantly choreographed pas de deux that is dedicated to “Mr. Steve McQueen,” and that lives up to that level of cool. It certainly captures Winslow’s stature as a writer from whom others can learn the ropes.
The piece takes its title both from the Pacific Coast Highway (U.S. Route 101) and from the idea of an introductory academic course, in keeping with the maxims that Winslow studs throughout. (“There’s a word for a man who believes in coincidence,” reads one: “the defendant.”) The characters include a debonair jewel thief who cruises the highway in lovingly described American cars, and Detective Lou Lubesnick, who will clearly be a Winslow keeper.
Lou is no kind of crime story cliché. Happily driving his Honda Civic through the story’s lineup of supercharged McQueen-mobiles, he’s a middle-aged San Diego pragmatist with an unraveling marriage who thinks he’ll try out beach living. His personal life gives Winslow a lot to work with as “Crime 101” arranges the elements for a final showdown: Lou, the thief and a Mustang like the one from “Bullitt.” Plus a battle of wits played out by naming McQueen movie titles.
The other showstopper in the collection is “The San Diego Zoo,” dedicated to “Mr. Elmore Leonard” — although even Leonard himself rarely wrote anything as riotous as the opening sequence here, which proceeds from a priceless first line: “No one knows how the chimp got the revolver.”
The armed primate in question has escaped from the zoo, and a patrol cop named Shea is called to the scene. Through a quick series of mounting mishaps, which honor Leonard’s adage about leaving out the boring parts, Shea falls out of a tree, becomes a YouTube sensation and gets stuck with the nickname Monkey Man. Lou Lubesnick shows up at the zoo to do damage control, and it’s a safe bet that the Monkey Man will become a recurring Winslow character too.
Some of the other stories here resurrect the author’s best-known characters. In “Sunset,” dedicated to Raymond Chandler, the obligatory Los Angeles nostalgia and long goodbyes involve a wasted onetime surfer god, the private investigator Boone Daniels and Winslow’s wave-riding Dawn Patrol, who first appeared together in the 2008 novel that bore their name.
The feeling of brokenness is palpable here, and it’s a big part of the author’s sensibility when he isn’t being clever. It’s most evident in “The Last Ride,” the book’s final novella, which boils with grief and rage over the United States’ policy of separating immigrant children from their parents in detention camps. “The Last Ride” is a vignette-size version of an enormously wrenching plot thread from “The Border.” Winslow can’t do here what he did to such devastating effect there. But he creates an unlikely Trump devotee who undergoes a spiritual and political conversion upon encountering an abandoned little girl imprisoned in his native Texas. He becomes hellbent on returning her to her deported mother.
“Broken,” the novella that opens the book, is like a fragment from Winslow’s recent police novel “The Force.” It’s well executed and propulsive, but its unalloyed viciousness makes it a tough read for the moment. Two brothers, both cops, have a mother who’s a 911 dispatcher. Blame their abusive father for the family streak of anger, or just blame the oversimplified plot Winslow provides for them. When drug traffickers torture and kill the younger one, Danny, it becomes the mission of Jimmy McNabb to wreak the ugliest vengeance he can. His mother even tells him to do it.
“Broken” would work better if it had more context. But there’s only so much Winslow can do with a 60-page format and a lot of varied physical damage on the menu. He knows much more imaginative ways of inflicting pain, as demonstrated here in “Paradise,” which is “Savages” lite with a Hawaiian setting. Why Hawaii? Because one weed-obsessed character has been inspired by the lyrics to “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” which he thinks contain a secret code. That idea isn’t new, but thinking that the song advises listeners to move to Hawaii is. And, as absurdist proof that not all violence is physical, he is also certain that it’s among the military’s most effective means of torture. “He’s seen Taliban and AQ break down and cry by now. (Usually it was Peter, Paul and Mary. Or Kenny G. that did it.)”