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Book Review- “The Kings of Cool”

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.

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