Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels are as much about a particular culture or sub-culture as they are about the crime. It’s tricky to pull that off without losing the main plot thread – the crime and its solution. But when it’s done well, such a novel can evoke an atmosphere and culture quite effectively. As an example, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol.
Boone Daniels is a former San Diego Police Department officer who’s become a PI. But his real passion is surfing. He lives in San Diego’s Pacific Beach, and spends as much of his time surfing as he can. He’s got a group of friends called the Dawn Patrol who join him. Daniels’ friends Hang Twelve (usually called ‘Hang’), High Tide, Johnny Banzai, Dave the Love God (he is a legend among women, both locals and tourists), and Sunny Day almost always surf together before they go to their various jobs. Then, when they can, they get together after work, too, and surf. In fact, Daniels would rather surf than actually make a living at a regular job.
Everything changes when attorney Petra Hall, from the law firm Burke, Spitz, and Culliver, approaches Daniels about taking a case on behalf of Coastal Insurance Company. They’re being sued by Daniel ‘Dan Silver’ Silvieri. It seems a warehouse he owns in Vista (something like 45 miles/72 km north and east of San Diego) burned. Coastal investigated and believes that it’s a case of arson, so they won’t pay. Dan Silver’s now suing them for damages and bad faith to the tune of US$5 million. Hall wants Daniels to find a stripper named Tamera Roddick who is a witness to the fire, and whose testimony will be important. Daniels doesn’t want to take the case, as a major set of waves is due in the area in the next few days, and he doesn’t want to miss his chance. But he’s finally convinced.
Then, a young woman dies of a fall from the balcony of a cheap motel room. At first, it’s assumed that she is the missing Tamera, because she has Tamera’s ID. But it soon turns out that the dead woman is actually Tamera’s best friend, another stripper who calls herself Angela Hart. But why was Tamera’s ID found with the dead woman? And which woman was the killer actually targeting?
As Daniels and Hall try to find the missing woman, they learn bits and pieces about her life in the past few months. And Daniels, in particular, wants to know who killed Angela Hart. He’s driven in part by a case from years earlier, when he was on the police force. A six-year-old girl disappeared from her front lawn, and was never found. He’s been trying to learn what happened to her since, since he blames himself for not solving the case. Little by little, he and Hall find out what happened to Tamera Roddick, how it’s linked up with Angela Hall’s murder, and what it all has to do with the warehouse fire. And before they’re done, they turn up some truly ugly secrets that some people are keeping.
This novel takes place in San Diego County, and Winslow places the reader there in many ways. Winslow provides background information on how the area developed, what it’s like geographically and demographically, and so on. Each reader is different about how much of that sort of information is ‘too much,’ so your mileage, as the term goes, may vary. But it’s more than just the history. The various small towns in the county, the roads that connect them, and so on, are all a part of the story.
San Diego has many different cultures and sub-cultures. Winslow concentrates on the surfing life, including the mix of cultural influences on it. Surfing takes athletic ability and lots of practice to surf, even to surf a little. And these people know the water, the weather patterns, and the beaches. One of them, Sunny Day, is so skilled at surfing that she has a real chance at national and international coverage, endorsements, and more. What’s more, they all have other jobs (cop, PI, lifeguard, restaurant server, etc.). Winslow evokes surfing and the surfing life as the story unfolds, even in details such as the language and surfing customs (and yes, there are surfing customs).
The members of the Dawn Patrol figure heavily in the novel. They don’t join Daniels’ investigation, but all of them have a part to play in the way the mystery unfolds. So, we get to know each. We learn their backstories, how they got into surfing, their plans, and so on. And we see how close-knit the group is. They are close friends as well as surfing partners.
But that friendship is tested and changed by the mysteries at hand. And the truth about Tamera Roddick’s disappearance, Angela Hart’s death, and the warehouse fire, is ugly. It’s even harrowing. Readers who prefer light mysteries will want to know that. There’s violence, too, some of it also ugly. But it’s not gratuitous or extended.
That said, though, there is wit in the story. Here, for instance, is Daniels’ reflection on the explosion of interest in Southern California after the Beach Boys became popular:
‘So many people moved to the SoCal coast, it’s surprising it didn’t just tilt into the ocean. Well, it sort of did; the developers threw up quick-and-dirty condo complexes on the bluffs above the ocean, and now they’re sliding into the sea like toboggans.’
Daniels mourns the loss of the days before the surge of popularity, when not many people knew about the great Southern California surfing beaches.
It’s also worth pointing out that this isn’t one of those stories where every question is answered. Readers learn the answers to the main mysteries, but there are some ‘loose ends.’ Things aren’t wrapped up neatly at the end.
The Dawn Patrol is the story of a group of surfers whose lives are changed when one of them takes a case that turns out to be gut-wrenching. It’s set against a distinctive San Diego backdrop, and features a PI who’d rather surf than fight, but has a strong sense of what’s right. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dawn Patrol? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 18 September/Tuesday, 19 September – Another Margaret – Janice McDonald
Monday, 25 September/Tuesday, 26 September – Among Thieves – John Clarkson
Monday, 2 October/Tuesday,3 October – Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters