Surf culture appeals to many of us who have never contemplated actually surfing, precisely because it offers us the rare vision of people who are happy with who they are and what they do. Get beneath the surfspeak and what you hear being expressed is the gratitude of men and women who regard their patch of the natural world as an invaluable gift. Even the Amish probably like surfers.
Don Winslow’s comic thriller The Gentlemen’s Hour marks the return of the group of wave riders who made their way through his 2008 novel The Dawn Patrol. That title referred to a set of disparate surf devotees — a ladies’ man lifeguard; a huge Samoan publics-works employee; a stoner computer whiz; the coffee shop waitress and devout Buddhist wating for the chance to go pro; a Japanese homicide cop; and their de facto leader Boone Daniels, an ex-cop private eye whose business is an afterthought next to his passion for surfing — who greet the start of each San Diego day in the water, on their boards, awaiting God’s watery bounty. The “Gentlemen” of this volume are a group of former surf bums, now mostly respectable businessmen, who follow the Dawn Patrol into the water or, on some mornings, just hang in the parking lot to retell old stories.
In this outing, Boone’s maybe-girlfriend Petra, an English lawyer as serious as Boone is laid back, persuades him to look into the case of a skinhead who has confessed to murdering Boone’s mentor, a beloved former pro. Boone comes to believe the kid’s confession is phony, but his very presence on the case starts dissension in the ranks of the Dawn Patrol.
Were Winslow writing a different kind of crime story, perhaps those fissures would become untraversible crevasses. But the waves lull Winslow into an affable mellow. Nothing really bad happens in either of these books to anyone really good, and as a result, The Gentlemen’s Hour has less of an edge than its predecessor. The plotting, though far from simple (a case of marital infidelity, a land swindle, and a Mexican drug cartel are also part of the tale) doesn’t approach the urgency that drove The Dawn Patrol.
I’m not complaining. The book’s essential friendliness feels more genuine than the forced telgraphic bursts of violence and bad attitude in Winslow’s last novel, the acclaimed Savages.
At the climax of The Gentlemen’s Hour, increasingly shorter chapters — bopping back and forth between the rapidly entwining plot threads — build suspense much like good crosscutting in a movie thriller. Winslow’s unshowy use of surfer lingo indicates that he’s paid attention to the lessons Elmore Leonard imparts about the power of precisely rendered speech to transmit the essence of a character. And few novelists could include chapter-long discursions on the development of San Diego or the Second World War’s effect on surf culture, without making you want to skip ahead.
At its most enjoyable, The Gentlemen’s Hour, like The Dawn Patrol, combines the utopianism you see in the surf documentary Step into Liquid or in Don James’s photos of California surf culture in the ’30s and ’40s with the adrenaline-propelled goofiness of Kathryn Bigelow’s rhapsodic surf/heist movie Point Break. It’s not every crime writer who can thrill you while teaching the virtues of contentment.