Author: Don Winslow

Title: The Gentlemen's Hour

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Picking up The Gentlemen's Hour, the newest novel from California crime novelist Don Winslow, is a lot like - to borrow a comparison from the book itself - surfing in the Pacific. At first it's engaging and comfortable, a downright breezy experience. But as the plot picks up speed, the ride gets rougher, and pretty soon you find yourself yanked along, helpless to resist the pull of the story.

Winslow is perhaps best known for 2010's Savages, a critically-acclaimed crime novel set to be filmed by Oliver Stone next year. In Hour, he returns to his home turf - San Diego surf culture - to spin a surf-centric yarn about down-on-his-luck private investigator Boone Daniels.

A former cop who still mourns the one that got away, Daniels feels like the quintessential Everyman, except not many of us have a shabby house set directly above the Pacific, surf every  morning, or scarf down tacos made with fish we caught ourselves with a spear gun. But in the less biographical details, Daniels is a mouthwatering protagonist. He's looking for love, justice, and fulfillment like the rest of us.

In Hour, Daniels is thrown into the middle of the murder investigation of Kelly "K2" Kuhio, one of his surfing heroes, who was jumped by a local punk named Corey Blasingame.

When approached by his girlfriend to do some investigation to assist Blasingame's defense, Daniels blanches, but accepts, knowing that his alliance with Blasingame's defense will alienate him from his surfing crew, a group known as the Dawn Patrol.

As he begins to investigate, Daniels finds himself in the middle of a complicated series of crimes involving shady local real estate deals, Mexican drug cartels, and white supremacists.

The way in which Winslow weaves these plot strands together into a cohesive and clear whole is particularly masterful. What makes Hour sizzle, however, is its emotional resonance. Winslow is careful to build the novel on two universal themes, then provide them with relevance through clever use of surfing metaphors.

The first arises in the novel's second chapter, when he discusses the idea of instability: "Like water, earth is always moving. You can't necessarily see it, you might not feel it, but it's happening anyway." By establishing this theme early, the rest of the novel takes shape around it, as Daniels is forced to choose between allegiance to his friends or a developing sense of ethical principles. Winslow also discusses ethics through the idea of "gentlemen," as in the novel's title.

"The Gentlemen's Club" refers to the second wave of surfers to hit the beach each morning, the older crowd, with stories to tell, and, presumably, scruples. As the novel progresses, Daniels finds himself frequenting this crowd more than his early Dawn Patrol buddies. Throughout the book, Nichols meets people who publicly act with ethics - hence, like "gentlemen," - but privately are involved in unseemly deeds. This also forms the instability alluded to earlier.

While these are meaty themes which make for a thoughtful read, Winslow keeps the story clipping along at a brisk pace. His writing style features a choppy, frenetic syntax and a laugh-out-loud knack for inserting sarcastic asides next to narrative description.

His characters are vividly drawn and Winslow is obviously tapped into the SoCal setting, which creates an authenticity vital to the novel's success. The end result is a crime story that's less brutal than some of his previous work, but masterfully told and equally gripping.

*This review first published 8/19/2011