After writing several amiable, implausible mystery-adventures about a private eye working his way through grad school, novelist Don Winslow tried his hand at the so-called "big novel." The result was "The Death and Life of Bobby Z" (1997), about a raffish convict who is offered a get-out-of-jail card if he agrees to impersonate the legendary drug lord and surfer dude Bobby Z.
It was a fast-paced tale, told in present tense, that was even more amiable and even more implausible than his private eye thrillers. But it still wasn't quite the big book he and his publisher were expecting.
His new one, "California Fire and Life" (Knopf, $23, 337 pages), hits much closer to the mark, thanks to its totally convincing, thoroughly fascinating descriptions of arson and its detection. There's a cleverly presented chronicle of protagonist Jack Wade's experiences in fire school that's as wonderfully entertaining as it is richly detailed.
This sort of bedrock authenticity, stemming from Winslow's 15-year term as an arson investigator, seems to be the main thing that's been missing from his previous books. His other novels have displayed a breezy, flashy style peppered by dark humor and surprising twists. His heroes, like Wade, have been likable and hapless gents, who have gone through their crucibles of fire, literally in this case, before they could reclaim their dignity.
Wade fell from grace while poking into soot and rubble for the Dana Point Sheriff's Department. For entirely justifiable reasons, he planted evidence and was busted for it. Since then, he's been living in a self-imposed limbo, not quite here nor there, spending his early mornings astride his Hobie longboard and the rest of the time investigating claims for California Fire and Life. When the big wave comes, it's an arson-homicide case that carries him toward rocky shoals--a face-off with Nicholas Vale, one of Orange County's most powerful citizens.
Ignoring warnings from friends and foes, Wade doggedly digs through the remnants of the fire that killed Vale's wife and destroyed his home, exposing not only crime but also the tendrils of his own past life. In the average paranoid thriller, this ritual gathering together of a protagonist's lost loves and be^tes noirs is usually a matter of coincidence. Winslow is too much of a storyteller to rely on chance. He's not above using burnt-out genre staples. Weird mother-son relationships. Crooked cops. Car chases. Even the Russian Mafia (which has gone from unique to old hat in the blink of an eye). He seems to enjoy the challenge of renewing their luster. In "California Fire and Life," he's not always successful, but his eloquent ruminations on conflagrations and their aftermath are enough to cover a few misfires.
Another surfer sleuth, Richard Barre's Wil Hardesty, winds up in the Central Valley in "Blackheart Highway" (Berkley, $21.95, 326 pages), far from his Santa Barbara hearth and Hobie. He's there to get his head pounded and his heart, if not blackened, then at least tugged a bit. His travels and travails are at the behest of an eccentric lawyer who has hired him to find out why Doc Whitney, former country music great, has been lurking around his hometown after serving 20 years for homicide. Seems that Doc, in a coke haze, murdered his wife and two daughters, and his return is upsetting the locals. Barre is an award-winning novelist who skimps on neither characterization nor plot. Both get full measure here, in a tale that satisfactorily spans two decades while introducing us to an assortment of fully realized folks, good and evil. The best of the bunch is Doc, the man of mystery. Creating an enigmatic, taciturn character that has enough dimension to cast a shadow over a novel is no easy task. Barre handles that admirably, at the same time providing several lines of country song lyrics that make you wish the book had been packaged with a soundtrack CD. On second thought, let's not rush to that particular multimedia concept; it will come soon enough.
The Times reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O' Gorman on audio books.
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* This Sunday: Patricia Hampl on the "The Best American Short Stories of the Century"; Patrick McGilligan on the art of Alfred Hitchcock; and Peter Biskind on Elia Kazan.