Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Two Light Reads for August

It's friday in the second week of August.  The dog days of summer, hot and sticky.  Tomorrow's the full moon, both the green corn moon and the sturgeon moon, its father the sky, its mother a fish.

The television news doesn't help matters.  Fires burning in London, political fear all over the airways here in the states, and all that hysteria can be contagious.  I can always escape into a good book, sticking to the lite, if not the light tonight.

One of my lite reads this month was J. C. S. Smith's Nightcap, a conventional detective novel with a wise and humane protagonist, a New York Jew and a fan of harness racing, and in that regard unusual.  It too starts out in the dog days:

"The middle of August is a slow, steamy time of year in New York.  Muggers, con artists, and second-story men work overtime to fill some kind of seasonal quota, but everyone else takes it easy, just trying to make it through the grit and thermal inversions until September arrives and the city starts to come alive again."

"People who can afford to leave town.  Ordinary types haul a deck chair up on the roof and work on turning their sunburn into tan.  Singles give up on finding a summer romance and start thinking about whether they should look for a new apartment instead.  Kids hang around the playground too hot to play ball, too bored to think of anything else to do.  Even the tourists begin to look a little brown around the edges."

If you're new to the series, you might want to read Jacoby's First Case before you read Nightcap.  The protagonist is full of world weary witty asides and he makes pleasant company.  The narrator's attitude, the old fashioned social criticism and manners--these all tend to make this novel an older person's read.

The other lite crime novel I'd like to recommend this week, Don Winslow's The Gentlemen's Hour, is certainly a younger person's book, the second in the series featuring the Dawn Patrol, a circle of surfing buddies headed by private investigator Boone Daniel.

The book opens at the beach during August:  "It's boring--the torpid dog days of late summer, when Pacific Beach is overrun with tourists, when most of the locies have basically sung "See you in September," and the ocean itself can't work up the energy to produce a wave. . .It's been a hot, techy summer in San Diego--tempers have flared and lives have been extinguished."  

At first I thought of Thomas Magnum, but the Dawn Patrol reminds me more of the the original Justice League of America comic, with each member having his own specialty power.  In the original JLA, J'ohn J'onzz was the Manhunter.  In here, Dave the Love God is a lifeguard and a woman hunter.  In the JLA, Aquaman was the merman with special powers in the water.  In here, Hang Twelve doesn't exactly have webbed feet or fins, but he is enhanced with six toes on each foot--hence his nickname.  Johnny Banzai and High Tide each have their special qualities, and Sunny Day is the sole female in the group, the Wonder Woman usually away on special assignment.

The original JLA had Snapper Carr, a slang talking youth who was based upon Ed "Kookie" Byrnes of television's 77 Sunset Strip.  Part of his jive talk was always made up, often humorously, and it seems to me that the narration here does the same thing, mixing youthful slang and surf slang with the author's invention.  It's a bit off-putting at first, but you get used to it.

Despite the lite format, there are some serious issues raised in the novel.  Boone and his friends like the tourist dollars but hate it when their paradise becomes too crowded, when land developers try to rope off their access to the water.  Drugs and violence are everywhere.  The main investigation that Boone takes on produces enough moral ambiguity for serious thought, but this is not a serious book--this is entertainment.

Still, Winslow does a lot of things very well.  The first chapter on the first page reads:


See "flatter than."

Like the ocean this August morning in Pacific Beach, San Diego, California.

Aka Kansas.

As the Dawn Patrol gives way to the Gentleman's Hour.

I read that as Boone's thoughts as he lays on his surf board, waiting for a wave big enough to surf on.  I can hear the waves pass between the lines.  Something different, and nicely done.

The Dawn Patrol is the name given to the early surfing hour, when workers meet to catch a wave or two before they report to their jobs.  The Gentleman's Hour is the time after that, when the independently wealthy and those others with time to spare hit the beach to surf at their leisure.

This is a much better book than the first novel, Dawn Patrol, itself.  Boone is more mature--not a lot, but there is some growth.  This second novel in the series was first published as a paperback in Great Britain and it has just recently come out in hardcover here.  I like the picture on the dustjacket with the two surfers waiting for a wave in the distance, but the blood-red font is simply too dark and hard to read on a bookshelf.  The blurbs on the rear of the dustjacket are not for this book; they are all for what may be his more serious thriller, Savages

It's almost as if the publisher is asking for The Gentlemen's Hour to be quickly forgotten.  Too bad.  There just aren't a lot of surfing detectives around.


  1. Don Winslow's books are well worth reading. He tries to write a different book every time out. No formulas for this guy. SATORI is a good example.

  2. Are the books billed as... well, they wouldn't be YA books, I guess. But I like your invocation of the Justice League of America.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  3. Hey, Peter, thanks for stopping by. I think that they are YA novels, especially when you compare them to such as Tim Winton's BREATH, which I analyze here:

  4. Uh, oh. Is surfing a metaphor for life? A rite of passage? Or what?

  5. In Tim Winton's BREATH, extreme surfing becomes an addiction, the rush of endorphins a high that becomes a death wish. Along with this, there is an edenic parable about the addiction to sex and the sport of auto-erotic asphyxiation that killed David Carradine, David Foster Wallace, and numerous others.

    It all ties into the title, BREATH, in a brilliant way.