Tuesday, August 24, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Don Winslow's 'Savages' is a Fast-Paced, Wild and Funny Crime Story

A team of U.S. Navy SEALs huddles around a coffee urn at their firebase in Afghanistan after an exhausting firefight with the Taliban.

“How can you account for people doing something so … savage?” asks the team’s shocked and appalled medic.

“Easy,” replies the more jaded SEAL team leader. “They’re savages.”

Don Winslow’s crime thriller Savages (Simon and Schuster) opens with two words:

Fuck you.

This is pretty much Chon’s attitude. But Chon, formerly known as John, a former Navy SEAL and  ex-mercenary, doesn’t have attitude, according to his friend Ophelia, he has “baditude.”

Chon, the son of one of the original California marijuana kings, was a bad kid, but he earned his GED, joined the Navy and became a SEAL.

“They taught him to do everything that a seriously crazy, crazily athletic man could do in H2O.

Then they sent him to Stanland.



You got sand, you got snow, you ain’t got no ocean.

The Taliban don’t surf.”

The above is the sort of free verse that Winslow sprinkles through out the novel.

(Note to author Winslow: The L in SEAL stands for land. The SEALs train and operate in the sea, in the air and on land — Sea Air Land — SEAL).

Chon is one of three good friends who live in Laguna Beach.

Ben is the second of the close-knit trio. Ben, the son of leftist, Jewish shrinks (both his mother and father have lucrative psychotherapy practices), is a wealthy environmentalist and philanthropist.

His good deeds are financed by his highly successful marijuana business. Chon, who provides the muscle, is Ben’s partner in the mostly mellow pot business.

Ophelia, known as O for her loud multiple orgasms, is the third friend. O is a slim, “pixie like’ slacker who lives to shop. She has serious issues with her mother, whom she calls “Paqu.” It’s an acronym, O explains, for Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe.

Her mother is South Orange County rich and beautiful. “Blonde hair, blue eyes and BRMCB — Best Rack Money Can Buy (you have real boobs here, you’re, like, Amish)”

O is happily sleeping with both Chon and Ben and the three friends led an idyllic life on Laguna Beach.

And then the Mexican Baja Cartel made them an offer that they can’t refuse.

The notorious Mexican drug gang wants to take over Ben and Chon’s pot business and make them employees of the cartel. To help convince them of their serious intentions, the cartel sent along a video of several men being beheaded.

Chon wants to respond in the same manner in which he handled an earlier threat from an outlaw biker gang. He killed them.

Ben wants to negotiate with the cartel and he agrees to meet with them. The Mexicans don’t want to negotiate; they want to take over the pot business.

And this impasse begins the conflict in this fast-paced, violent, irreverent and very funny thriller.

I first became acquainted with Don Winslow when I read his crime novel The Winter of Frankie Machine.

In the novel Frank Machiano, known as “Frank the Bait Guy,” runs a bait shop and laundry service in San Diego, California. Machiano, who is known in other certain circles as ”Frankie Machine” for his cold-blooded killing ability, is a retired mob soldier.

He is drawn back into the world organized crime after someone orders a hit on the retired hitman.

Like Savages, The Winter of Frankie Machine is wickedly funny and a fast-paced thriller.

There is talk of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro making a film of the novel. The character of Machiano’s partner-in-crime would be a good role for Joe Pesci. I’d liked to see Scorsese once again team up with his Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino actors, De Niro and Pesci.

I enjoyed Savages but I have two problems with the thriller. My main beef is the character Chon being a former Navy SEAL.

Sure, there are one or two former SEALs who have gone bad in real life, but I’m old enough to recall when every psychotic killer and nut job in novels, on TV and in the movies during the 1960s and 1970s was a Vietnam veteran.

This trend began to wane when Magnum P.I. came on TV in 1980. Magnum offered not only one, but three positive characters who were Vietnam veterans. Thomas Magnum, portrayed by Tom Selleck, was a former Navy SEAL.

Magnum’s two friends, Rick and TC, were also Vietnam veterans. Higgins, the major domo of the Robin Master’s estate, was an honorable World War II veteran.

Magnum P.I., an amusing, lighthearted crime show, was very popular throughout the 1980s. I believe the pro-military show was instrumental in curtailing the veteran as killer and criminal stereotype in novels and on the big and small screen.

I would hate to see that stereotype begin to grow in popular fiction once again.

I also had a problem with the ending of Savages. Of course, I won’t reveal the ending here, but I thought the conclusion of the novel was too pat.

But otherwise I enjoyed the novel, and if you like humorous, irreverent and fast-paced crime thrillers, then you’ll like Savages as well.

1 comment:

  1. As a long time fan of the detective/crime thriller genre, I've been enjoying the works of noir writers for decades. The majority of my favorite authors have directed their talent and literary skills along this well-worn path. I found Don Winslow thanks to a friend that devours books by the scores each year...and I'm very appreciative of that recommendation. I've read three of Winslow's books thus far and loved them all. This one shows Winslow at the top of his craft.