The first Don Winslow novel I read was “The Power of the Dog” a grim, epic, and sprawling tale of the Drug War on the Mexican-American border from the 70s-90s. To this day it’s still one of my favorite books I’ve read. So from the get go, I knew Winslow was a master of telling historically accurate, relevant and exciting tales about the people who sell drugs, the people that try to stop those sales and everyone else in between. What I didn’t know yet was how funny a writer Winslow was. I discovered that later in his other books like “The Death and Life of Bobby Z” and of course “Savages.” In his most recent novel “The Kings of Cool,” which is a prequel to “Savages,” Winslow displays both his skill at historical crime fiction and his wicked sense of humor. The end result is a novel that surpasses “Savages,” which I loved.
In 2010′s “Savages” we got to know Laguna’s top pot dealers: the humanitarian Ben; his best friend the violent ex-navy SEAL Chon, and their shared girlfriend O. By the end of that novel I loved all three characters, and in the opening chapters of “The Kings of Cool,” Winslow winds the clock back five years and readers are reintroduced to the trio right as Ben and Chon are making their mark on the California drug scene. It was like visiting with old friends. The characters remain just as engaging as they were in “Savages” and their dialogue just as funny. It’s five years earlier so they’re not exactly the characters they were in “Savages,” but everything I loved about the trio is still there.
Several chapters later Winslow rewinds the clock back even further to 1967 as he takes readers back to the early days of the drug scene in Laugna Beach and introduces them to a whole new set of characters that are just as interesting as Ben, Chon, and O like teenagers John and Kim, drug pusher “Doc” Halliday, and hippies Stan and Diane. These characters bounce off each other in fun and intriguing ways, but their connection to what’s going on with Ben and Chon in 2005 isn’t immediately clear.
That’s okay though. Both narratives are equally interesting and they’re made even more so by Winslow’s narrative voice. Most stories that employ a third person omniscient narrator only allow said narrator to report the facts. Not Winslow though, he allows his third person narrator to be sarcastic and the results are awesome. Some of the funniest bits from “The Kings of Cool” are the narrator’s sly comments on what’s happening.
While the narrative with Ben, Chon, and O, takes place strictly in 2005 the story that began in 1967 slowly starts to jump forward and pick up speed. As it does Winslow starts to reveal the connections between the characters in the original drug trade and Ben, Cho, and O. Before you know it the stories have intersected and you’re back in 2005 again where Winslow has set the stage for an epic, brutal, exciting, and emotionally powerful climax.
Winslow also uses “The Kings of Cool” to set the stage for what will happen later in “Savages” by allowing us to spend time with some of the supporting cast from that novel. Readers get to see how DEA Agent Dennis, drug queenpin Elena, and vicious cartel hitman Lado become the character they’ll later be. They aren’t the only supporting characters in the book either. Fans of Winslow’s work will be excited to know that the title characters from two of his other great novels, “The Death and Life of Bobby Z,” and “The Winter of Frankie Machine” make guest appearances. They’re small cameos, but they’re such great characters and it’s fun to spend time with them again.
So all in “The Kings of Cool” lives up to it’s title and it’s pedigree as a prequel to “Savages.” In fact it’s a rare prequel that ends up being better than the original story that inspired it. In “The Kings of Cool” Winslow demonstrates why he’s a master at his chosen craft and why he deserves to be mentioned along with Michael Connelly and Robert Crais in the category of best living California Crime Writers.
I’m a huge fan of crime fiction especially the hardboiled, dark morally, complex kind. So it’s always fun to see it merged with other genres. Back in the days of the pulp magazines writer Robert E Howard began to write fantasy stories that incorporated elements and some of the style of the crime fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett. The result was a cool character driven fantasy sub genre called “Sword and Sorcery” and in his debut novel “Low Town” writer Daniel Polansky leans into the crime fiction elements of Sword and Sorcery to tell an immensely satisfying noir tale about crime and justice in a world where magic and monsters, of both the human and supernatural, variety are a reality.
In “Low Town” Polansky takes readers to a world divided by 13 different lands where technology and society isn’t exactly medival, but it’s not exactly the industrial revolution either. The largest metropolis in this world is Rigus. In the wealthier areas of Rigus crime and corruption occur behind closed doors, but in Low Town, an impoverished district of back alleys and slums it occurs out in the open. In fact, The Warden, Polansky’s protagonist makes a living off of it as Low Town’s premier, independent drug dealer.
In the Warden, Polansky has given readers a fascinating and flawed protagonist. As the story unfolds we never find out his real name, but we discover he’s a man that’s been so wounded by his past, that he has trouble not lashing out at his friends and family. That past includes his time on the streets as an almost feral orphan after a plague ravaged Low Town and killed much of it’s adult population. It also includes time spent as a soldier in a bloody World War I style conflict, which only served to harden his cynicism even more. The final piece in the puzzle of the Warden’s hardened world view was his time spent as a cop and an intelligence agent. His expulsion from that career lead to his new path as a a salesmen of illicit pharmaceuticals, which he often indulges in when the ghosts of his past start to haunt him too much.
So the Warden is a jaded and cynical man, but he’s not heartless. He’s reminded of this fact in the early pages of “Low Town” when he discovers the body of a murdered child. The murder reawakens his sense of justice and causes him to launch an unofficial investigation that will have combing the back alleys of Low Town and the wealtheir areas of Rigus in search of Justice.
The past of both the Warden and Rigus are integral to the plot of “Low Town,” but they don’t over power the narrative. Polansky deals out these revelations in an expert way so they never feel like an exposition dump. The book is told in first person narration by the Warden so whenever you get clues about his past of the city they are always colored by an interesting perspective. These past revelations are not done chronologically either, which makes them feel organic. Also they’re often small tantalizing bits. Where some fantasy stories would spend a chapter detailing a significant event in the history of their setting Polansky gives you a few paragraphs or pages. Occasionally he’ll expand on those revelations later and some times he’ll leave them dangling to pick up perhaps later in a sequel or for readers to decide themselves. A particularly effective example of this comes when readers learn how the Warden became such a popular drug dealer. You’re given just a hint of a fascinating and bloody story that could be revisited later.
As readers of “Low Town” learn about the past and present of the Warden they also meet some pretty fascinating characters. Like Adolphus, a tavern owner and one of the few friends the Warden has left; and the Crane an eccentric sorcerer that uses his magic to protect the people of Low Town, and served as a surrogate father for the Warden during his teenage years. Polansky also does something remarkable in that he gives the Warden a young helper in the form of a child named Wren and that character is not irritating. Wren is a child and occasionally does dumb stuff, but when he does it feels organic and no less intelligent that some of the other adult characters’ actions. Plus he’s a pretty capable criminal in his own right.
Another element Polansky handles exceptionally well in “Low Town” is magic. In the book magic is a resource that offers some benefits, but it’s often an unsettling or unnatural force. Especially in the scenes where spell casters are working dark and powerful magic. Polansky tackles these scenes and the forces they occasionally summon in a way similar to horror master H.P. Lovecraft. Some of the criminals in “Low Town” summon sinister and powerful forces and when these forces make themselves known it’s in a shadowy but horrifying way. So the reader is left with a fun and creepy sense of dread.
All these elements combine together to make a powerful and immensely satisfying crime-fantasy hybrid. With his Joe Pitt series of novels writer Charlie Huston expertly blended the conventions of the crime novel and vampire stories and Polansky does something similar and equally powerful with his debut novel. I hope the writer has more adventures planned for The Warden because I would love the chance to revisit the mean streets of “Low Town.”