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Surfing shamus

Times Staff Writer

WAVES breaking just a few feet away, the detective novelist Don Winslow was sitting on the patio of a Laguna Beach cafe with a view of the ocean below, looking like a private eye trying to avoid detection. A compact, wiry man whose intense green eyes flashed under a baseball cap, Winslow, 54, was talking about the strip of the coast that runs from San Diego through southern Orange County.

“What I think is emerging is a different kind of society,” said Winslow, “based on the amazing ethnic variety. San Diego County no longer has any ethnic majority. Look around you,” he said, pointing across the diners, most of them digging into fish tacos, who included a mix of Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino and Caucasian.

“It’s also developing its own language, with little bits of Hawaiian and Filipino and Spanish, especially when you mix the language of surf culture, which has always been fun to me,” he continued. “I wanted to write in that new language, about that new scene.”

Winslow’s new novel, “The Dawn Patrol,” is set in that milieu, with a Japanese cop nicknamed Johnny Banzai, a Hawaiian drug mogul named Red Eddie, a collection of migrant workers from Mexico and a cast of Anglos that includes the macho strip-club owner Dan Silver and the uptight lawyer Petra Hall. Although the story never gets more than a few miles from the ocean, it spans a wide world, indeed.

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The book’s core is a collection of five friends who, despite working jobs that sometimes bring them into conflict with each other, meet at sunrise each morning to take the early waves as the Dawn Patrol. Among them is Boone Daniels, an ex-cop with a beat-up van who runs a private-investigation office above a surf shop.

Echoes of McGee

BESIDES the setting, the book has little in common with the often brooding “surf-noir” novels of Kem Nunn. A cult figure for years, Nunn became nationally known after his novel “John From Cincinnati” was turned into a (short-lived) HBO series, directed by David Milch. Daniels is more a West Coast equivalent of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, the beach-bum P.I. who lived on a Fort Lauderdale houseboat.

“The Dawn Patrol” -- which could be a breakthrough for Winslow, who has garnered praise from James Ellroy and Ian Rankin without becoming well known -- seems an inevitable step for the journeyman writer who’s about a decade into a career setting noir novels in Southern California. And though he’s lived for the last few years in the ranch country an hour inland from San Diego, the book was a way for this swamp Yankee to get back to his love of surfing and the sea.

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With its short chapters, comic characters, hairpin plot turns and snappy dialogue, the novel can feel at times lighter than air. But it includes a considerable amount of violence, a heartbreaking subplot and its share of sleazy characters.

“One reason I find SoCal so interesting is that there’s so much beauty -- and that’s real,” Winslow said. “But there’s another layer underneath it that’s not so pretty. One thing I wanted to do was run those two tracks simultaneously -- without backing off of either.”

Making of a storyteller

WINSLOW’S hometown, next to the Rhode Island fishing village of Matunuck, was the kind of place where poverty was close -- if you don’t study hard, parents used to tell their kids, you’ll be sweeping fish guts off the plant floor.

But he retains an affection for those years as well: Winslow calls a “khaki-collar” upbringing -- he’s the son of a Navy noncom father who was “a great raconteur” and a librarian mother who encouraged him to read widely -- the best possible preparation to become a writer.

His parents would rent a lakeside cottage for a month each summer, inviting his dad’s Navy friends to come visit as long as they would toss aside any privilege of rank.

“You’d wake up and there would be five sailors on the floor, and there were scuba divers and Marines and Navy nurses. So you had these storytellers around you. I learned very early that if I was quiet and kind of hid, they’d pretend not to know I was there. So I had these stories from around the world -- and I always thought it would be the best thing in the world to be, if I could, to be a storyteller. But it was a bit of a long and winding road to get there.”

Winslow moved to New York in the late ‘70s to help a friend manage a series of movie theaters as a way to finance his literary ambitions.

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When the theater job fell through, he turned to something that offered, at least, a steady paycheck. He became a private investigator, working in the back alleys off Times Square -- “you’d think you were walking on seashells, but they were crack vials” -- and busting pickpockets in movie theaters. That, he said, was fun, but it didn’t seem to be leading anywhere.

That was followed by a master’s degree in military history, itinerant years leading safaris in Kenya and hiking trips in China’s Sichuan province and, eventually, gigs as a consultant and investigator who made frequent trips to the West Coast. He was writing novels, starting with “A Cool Breeze on the Underground” in 1991, set amid London’s punk scene and written in tents and buses all over the world, but wasn’t making much money.

“I started to come out here because of arson,” Winslow recalled. “This was in the ‘90s and everything that people had bought on margin, when things were fat and happy, they were burning down.”

Working as an investigator meant picking up some technical knowledge -- an accidental fire has one point of origin, but a building burned to the ground will have several -- as well as a lot of paperwork and fact checking.

“The really fun stuff was finding ways to explain the science to a jury in a way they could understand. That’s really what they wanted me for -- as much as a storyteller as an investigator.”

That narrative became important, since the visual evidence of an arson case was usually a black, ashy photograph. “It’s hard to photograph a burned structure. If you’re trained to look at it, you can see a certain burn pattern that tells you one thing but not another. But how do you communicate it?”

By the mid-'90s, fascinated and inspired by views of the Pacific, he moved out here with his wife, Jean, and infant son. “We lived in hotels and residence inns, in Orange County and San Diego, for close to three years, and it was great.” He wrote and surfed -- not well -- at beaches like San Onofre and Laguna.

Along the way, he kept writing until, in 1997, his novel “The Death and Life of Bobby Z” -- a thriller written on the Metrolink train between San Juan Capistrano and downtown L.A. -- took off. Warner Bros. bought the rights to it one day, and Knopf a few days later. “And my life changed, literally, overnight.”

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Finally, after six books, he could quit his day job.

Film in the works

HE HAS also spent some time writing screenplays, and his 2006 novel, “The Winter of Frankie Machine,” is currently in pre-production, with Michael Mann directing and Robert De Niro in the lead.

“I like his brevity, I like the way he can cover a lot of time in a few pages,” said Southland novelist T. Jefferson Parker, a friend and admirer. “He’s so light and so nimble with the storytelling. He gets this high-velocity storytelling going, seemingly effortless, though I know there’s a lot of effort involved in writing that perfectly. He knows what to leave out and when to get offstage.”

So far, it’s been a fruitful season for surf books.

Spring has seen David Rensin’s “All for a Few Perfect Waves,” about surfer Miki Dora; Bob Greene’s “When We Get to Surf City"; and “Breath,” a coming-of-age novel by Tim Winton, one of Australia’s most decorated novelists.

As he drove and walked past some of SoCal’s legendary surf spots -- Salt Creek, Dana Point Harbor, once home to the fearsome “Killer Dana” wave that crashed into a wall of rocks and took surfers with it -- Winslow talked about surf lore, about how shape is often more important than a wave’s size, about how angry he gets to see construction and development at his old favorite spots. He was so into this history that he offered a “stop me when you’ve had enough” before one of his miniature lessons.

But it’s clear that Winslow is more interested in the characters and their argot than the technical or even physical side of surfing. His larger-than-life characters are among his novel’s pleasures.

Winslow’s P.I., Daniels, seems like the kind of laid-back dude whose most deeply held principle is that everything tastes better on a tortilla. Over the course of the book, he shows himself to be tormented, heroic and complicated.

“I wanted a lead character who embodied the ocean,” Winslow said. “So in the sense that if you look out there at it now, it looks very placid, but that can change in a heartbeat. There’s something going on underneath.”

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scott.timberg@latimes.com


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