Don Winslow Talks Broken
By Thomas PluckApril 7, 2020
"So maybe we can use this isolation to find some writers and read them, or go back to some of the classics and enjoy them again."
Join Thomas Pluck for a chat with Don Winslow as they discuss his latest book, Broken, and then continue reading for a full review!
Don Winslow is the bestselling author of the blockbuster epic Cartel trilogy, the NYPD cop saga The Force, the thriller Savages which was made into a movie directed by Oliver Stone, the Neal Carey mysteries, several standalone crime novels, Satori, the official sequel to Trevanian’s classic thriller Shibumi, and his latest, a six-shooter collection of crime novellas called Broken.
Thomas Pluck: Don, you’ve always been full of surprises. Anyone who reads the first sentence of Savages is in for a surprise. After the big stories in The Force and the Cartel saga that began with The Power of the Dog, you juked us with this collection of shorter fiction. What drove you to change gears?
Don Winslow: ‘Changing gears’ pretty much explains it. For most of the past twenty years, I’ve been running literary marathons, as it were. Long novels epic in scope. I loved it – I loved that distance, even that moment when I was exhausted and then realized that I was only at mile twenty. There was something about pushing through the fatigue to finish strong that was satisfying. But I also had stories in mind that, while not epic, were still more substantive than a short story could carry. So I wanted to try running that middle-distance. The novels take place in one location over the course of several days or weeks, not continents across decades, and it was fun to work in that kind of concentration while at the same time having the space to explore character and backstory. Also, I wanted a chance to bring back some older characters that readers have been asking me about, and this seemed the perfect spot to do it.
TP: Crime stories began as short-form before long series took over the genre. Some of these read like Paul Cain, and in one instance, Ed McBain. You dedicated one story to Chandler and another to Elmore Leonard. You have such a unique voice that it’s hard to pinpoint an influence, so I’ll ask that tired question: which writers influence you the most? Brit Lit like Neal Carey reads, or classic crime?
DW: All of the above. I started my reading life with the Brits, to wit, Shakespeare and then Dickens. I know this makes me a certified nerd, but I started memorizing bits of Shakespeare when I was about six. A couple of decades down the road, I was directing it to make a living. I think the influence has always stuck with me. For instance, when I was having structural trouble with a book called The Border, I went to Henry VI, Part One for answers. I was an actor as a kid, and they used to shut me up in the dressing room with a copy of Oliver Twist when they were having parties. That started me on Dickens, and I don’t think you ever get over that. Seriously, I think Shakespeare and Dickens were the first great crime writers in the English language. Now, Chandler and Leonard–I owe my living to them. Without them, none of us in the genre have our livings. I used to read Mr. Leonard on stakeouts when I was first thinking about doing this thing, and if write for another hundred years, I’ll never write anything a tenth as good as The Long Goodbye. I had a chance to go to Chandler’s house last year – it was like going to church.
TP: The balance of tone in these stories is excellent. It was brave to start with the toughest read, the title story, but New Orleans has always been a tough city. (Fans of The Force and The Cartel will love this one.) Is it the first time you’ve written about the Crescent City? And what made you set “Broken” there?
DW: It is the first time. New Orleans is my second home town – my mother is from there. My grandmother was an organizer for Huey Long. We spent a lot of time there when I was a kid, and I still eat (and cook) red beans and rice, gumbo, and jambalaya, and I’m that guy at a breakfast counter who asks for tabasco sauce for my eggs. New Orleans is unique – there’s nothing else like it in America, or maybe the world. So it was an opportunity to go back there, at least in my mind, and reacquaint myself with that great music – Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield, Jon Batiste, John Boutte, the Neville Brothers, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, and others. I’d listen to that music when I was working on Broken. I do that kind of thing a lot. When I writing a book called The Force, about the NYPD, I’d crank up hip-hop to full volume and type like crazy. But getting back to New Orleans, I’ve had that experience of being out in the Quarter all night and then going to the Morning Call at dawn for beignets and café au lait. Laissez les bontemps roulez, sugar.
I like honest, straightforward thieves better than the dishonest crooks on Wall Street and in Congress. They’re a much better class of people.
TP: San Diego is your turf and the three meaty stories in the middle take place there. “Crime 101” is a favorite of mine, because stories about thieves are getting hard to come by in the genre. Like Michael Mann, your thieves may have codes that keep them alive, but they aren’t Robin Hoods, they are out for themselves. Did you run into many career criminals in your life as a private investigator, and are there any cases you can talk about that influenced your stories?
DW: Well, thanks. It was fun to write. I just kept thinking of a confluence between Highway 101 (actually, see below) and a set of rules we could call Crime 101. Could that work? I hope so, but I’m the last to judge. I’ve also always been a huge fan of Steve McQueen, the personification of California cool, and I wondered what would happen if I had a character who modeled himself after McQueen. Yeah, I’ve run into a few career criminals in my life and career. I can’t really talk about particular cases (there’s a reason it’s called private investigator) but I have to admit I have a fondness for some thieves I’ve known. They never hurt anyone, served their time when they got caught, and then came out and when right back to their profession. My personal favorite was a guy who got out of a three-year stint and robbed a gas station on his way home. He never unpacked. I used to visit him in the pen and what he wanted, my hand to God, was Architectural Digest. I like honest, straightforward thieves better than the dishonest crooks on Wall Street and in Congress. They’re a much better class of people.
TP: I really enjoyed the callbacks and cameos of your characters in the San Diego stories. You make me want to move there. You started in New York, right? What turns a city P.I. into a rancher on the border in California?
DW: I came out here as an investigator and just fell in love. I remember the first time I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway, my beloved PCH, and just thought ‘I have to live here.’ I’ve driven that road now I don’t know how many hundreds of times and never get tired of it – it always excites me. For a writer, San Diego has so many different cultural biomes in a relatively small area – it’s so rich. The culture in one beach town can be distinct from another one just three miles away. As for the ranch, I was out here on a case before we moved here and a witness punked out on me, so I had an unexpected day off. I decided to drive a road I’d never been on before, and forty-five minutes outside downtown Dago, I found myself among horse and cattle ranches that could have been in South Dakota or Wyoming. Except you could see the ocean. I thought, ‘That’s for me’. Twenty-three years later, it still is.
TP: You end the book with a gut-punch western noir on the border that looks the ugly reality of the administration’s border policy in the face, “The Last Ride.” It would have been easy to cast it with cartoon villains, but you give everyone their humanity. You’re outspoken on Twitter (and everywhere, I enjoyed seeing you at your ranch on CBS Sunday Morning) about your opposition to current policy. As someone who lives on the border and began in law enforcement, how would you explain the situation to us who live far away?
DW: That it isn’t what you’ve been told by certain chief executives and his trained monkeys. Some of the Hispanic families in my town have been here since before it was the United States, others are more recent arrivals, but they are my friends and neighbors. We serve on school boards and committees together, go to birthday parties and funerals together, we worked together to bring the town back from massive wildfires. It makes me fighting furious when certain chief executives and his cretins call them thieves, rapists, and murderers. They’re wonderful, hardworking family people. It’s peaceful here, there’s no ‘invasion’. And, oh yeah, we get better food.
TP: And I can’t interview the author of the Cartel trilogy without talking about drugs. This is personal to me, as a loved one was addicted to heroin and clawed their way out. The story arc in The Border about the two addicted people trying to go clean hit me hard. As did your questioning why the USA consumes more painkillers, legal or otherwise, than any other country in the world. Towns are dying as factories close, cities crush working people to build more condos for the ultra-rich. Do you think the current crisis with the coronavirus might make Americans drop the “bootstraps” rhetoric and learn to help ease each other’s pain?
DW: First of all, every happiness to your loved one. I’ve known too many who didn’t make it, so it’s always a joy to hear about anyone who did. As to your question, I wish I knew the answer. It’s too soon to tell. I will say this — the more I see of the opioid crisis, the more I think the root problem is loneliness. We’re such an acquisitive society that we’ll left too little time and space for connection. The more technology that we invent to communicate, the less we actually do it. The irony of the current crisis is that it forces isolation, and in that, people now have to intentionally and actively seek ways to connect, and I think we’re starting to value it more now that we see what we’re missing. The other irony is that it’s that very technology that’s allowing us to connect with each other while we’re ‘social-distancing’. The world always turns, doesn’t it? So yeah, I hope that the vulnerability that we’re feeling makes us more sensitive to people who are chronically vulnerable and that we look at things in a less ‘social Darwinist’ way. Survival of the fittest is not for humans.
TP: Sorry to get heavy, there. So what’s next? Are you gonna juke again and write a musical, or write more about Chris Shea from “San Diego Zoo”? I wouldn’t mind reading more stories with him and Carolyn the zookeeper.
DW: A musical. Hmmm. I’ll bring that up to my agent after I take away his belt and shoelaces and lock his office windows. Glad you liked Chris and Carolyn—it’s a pretty silly story but great fun to write. You never know, man, I might bring them back if the right story presents itself. I never know how these things start – with that one I had this line in my mind — about a chimpanzee and a gun — literally for years, and finally thought, ‘Okay, what about it?’ I had Officer Chris take the radio call and made it up from there. I didn’t know how it happened until Chris did. (So much for outlines, huh?) But I think a lot of writing is answering the question ‘What if?’ and going on the subsequent ride.
TP: Thank you, Don, for this interview. I really enjoyed the new book, and I hope it makes those readers who say they prefer novels think again and appreciate a good collection of stories. And that it inspires more writers to take on the novella/short novel form and be as creative as someone who’s been juking us out since 1996. Any final words for the readers at Criminal Element?
DW: Thank you, Tom, for the kind words.
I guess what I’d say to crime fiction readers is that the genre is strong. I’m biased, of course, but I think that some of the best fiction writing these days is being done in our genre. So many talented women and men. So maybe we can use this isolation to find some writers and read them, or go back to some of the classics and enjoy them again. I’m re-read Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep last week.
The other thing I’d say is thanks. Without these readers, I don’t have this job I love and for which I’m so grateful.
The last thing I’d say is to I’m disappointed that I won’t get to see you in person on tour, but we’ll do it in happier times.
In the meantime, please take care of yourselves.
Continue reading for Thomas Pluck’s review of Broken!
Eva knows that you can come out of [that world], but you always come out broken.
Story collections are often risky in a genre that thrives on long series. So it’s shrewd to write longer-form stories and cast them as short novels in the pulp tradition. The first story is hard as hardboiled gets, New Orleans PD cops against a vicious drug lord trying to expand his turf. It’s a family story that could have been a season on The Wire and is most like Winslow’s standalone thriller, The Force. One thing about series is that sometimes writers are loathe to dispose of characters—George R.R. Martin excluded—but in shorter form, characters can live bright, brief lives, like a guttering candle flame that burns too hot.
Crime 101: Keep it simple.
What I loved about “Broken” was that he plays with our expectations in a revenge story. The characters are larger than life, but they behave like living people, not superheroes or obsessed grotesques. But there’s also levity and fantasy in the book, especially in my favorite story, “Crime 101.” This one is about a jewel thief who is literally as cool as Steve McQueen—one of his heroes, and Winslow’s—and drives top-end American muscle cars that fit right in on the highway and its tony suburbs where he finds his targets. He even drives a 50th Anniversary Bullitt Mustang at one point, which I appreciated, having owned a ’65 Mustang. The classics, like the 1968 GT 390 2+2 that McQueen drives in Bullitt, are great fun, but when compared to modern muscle are rather quaint, and putting a 50-year old car through its paces in an action story is a true rollercoaster ride for the driver, with the body roll, finicky suspension, and lack of safety equipment. But enough about the cars, the story pits Robbery Detective Lou Lubesnick against the “mythical” superman thief, and the story is like Heat reimagined by Steven Soderbergh, realistic but just fantastic enough for Hollywood. It’s a bracing, fun read with a real criminal for a change, not a “likeable” Robin Hood invented to assure middle-class readers with lots of jewelry that crime does not pay.
No one knows how the chimp got the revolver.
The biggest surprise is “The San Diego Zoo,” which is about the actual zoological park and the city itself. The story is dedicated to Elmore Leonard, and it certainly has the vibe of his caper novels, but because the main character is a street cop named Chris Shea who volunteers to tranquilize a chimpanzee that has somehow got its hands on a revolver and run amok, it reminded me more of an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel. Shea is a well-meaning schlimazel who does the right thing but always winds up being the butt of the joke. I could see him being played by Chris Pine or Dustin Milligan (Ted from Schitt’s Creek) and also see this story turning into a series of short, hilarious crime novels. Or more novellas. Winslow has shown he is a master of the form, with these stories never feeling stretched out or compressed to fit by literary Spanx that aren’t up to the job. This one’s got romance, dopey criminals, and an earnest young cop dealing with the social hierarchy and bureaucracy of the police department, and if he never writes another Shea story, I’d also be happy reading this one again every year or so. If it doesn’t end up in this year’s Best American Mystery Stories, there’s either a fix in or a word length limitation.
Terry Maddux is a dirtbag.
The next two stories revisit characters from previous novels but are still thrilling for those, like me, who haven’t yet read The Dawn Patrol or the Neal Carey mysteries. “Sunset” is about a former surf star who has become a bum, a woman-beating junkie who will sell anyone out for a fix. Surfer and skip tracer Boone Daniels is tasked with bringing his hero in to stand trial, so bondsman Duke Kasmajian isn’t left with a $300,000 pig in a poke that will sink his business. Discussions on the efficacy of cash bail aside, this is a story of meeting your heroes, letting them crash on your couch, and not calling the cops when they leave in the morning with the contents of your wallet. It also gives us the other side of the drug war, the people in unrelieved pain who use that heroin. Like the junkie couple trying to get clean in The Border, we meet Schaeffer, a surfer who runs a bar, who lost his son to heroin but will still help his junkie friend. He’s a pressure cooker of emotions, torn by tragedy and his duty to a friend. Boone, Neal Carey, Kasmajian, and Lubesnick have to navigate these treacherous waters and try to do the right thing. Which is always the hardest thing to do.
Fuck everyone, I’m on vacation.
“Paradise” brings back Ben, Chon, and O from Savages, and puts them in Hawai’i. It also brings back some other characters who are all surprises, so I’ll leave them for you to discover, but it was a treat. The story is rather like the novel they were born in, transplanted to the islands where the difference between malihini and ohana—strangers and family—is life or death. Kit Karsen—Winslow loves names that reference old cowboys, don’t he?—is a young surfer prodigy, a kama’aina (non-Hawaiian who resides in Hawai’i) who is at odds with his kanaka maoli (native Hawaiian) friends once his dad offers to sell prime farmland to Ben, Chon, and O to grow Maui Waui. It was a little bit of an eye-roll to have K2 as he’s called be more Hawaiian than his Hawaiian pals, who are tied up with The Company, an islander drug gang, but the story itself flies, with lots of solid action and whimsical weirdness, just like the singular novel. And the surprises just make it even better.
The first time he saw the child, she was in a cage.
The finale is the heartrending western border noir “The Last Ride,” about a Border Patrol agent working at a detention facility with children in cages, who wants to reunite a young girl with her mother. It would be easy for Winslow to make Officer Cal Strickland’s adversaries to this noble task simple cartoon villains, but that’s not how he operates. He plays in the pulp playground with his own rules, and one of them is even narcos are human, and they exist because we tolerate them. The same with these children in cages. He doesn’t put the blame solely on the administration, or even the people “just following orders.” The burden is shared by us all. Like The Border, the finale is a high-octane emotional thrill ride with no white hats and black hats, just one man trying to live up to his father’s principals, and a little girl that the system forgot.
This is one of the best story collections I’ve read, period. They could have been sold bundled as six little paperbacks, or three Ace Doubles, but together they make a potent bundle that can be read all at once, in any order, or one at a time, to savor like omakase from a sushi master. Winslow surprised the hell out of me with Savages, and he’s done it again with Broken. Who knows what’s next, but we’ll all be watching the waves to see what pops out the other side.