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There are some authors that you read who stand head and shoulders above the rest; when it comes to gritty crime noir that man is Don Winslow. The past two books that I have read of his have been absolute classics California Fire and Life and The Power of the Dog. Winslow is able to marry fantastic character development, great stories and in-depth research. Rather than being dry studies into insurance fraud and the drugs trade Winslow creates epics that feel more like film. With such a high quality back catalogue any new book by a favourite author is met with a mixture of anticipation and worry. Could it possibly live up to the quality of their past work? Let me say, The Winter of Frankie Machine lived up to the hype.
Everyone loved Frank the bait guy. He lived his life in a routine that say him wake up early and sell bait to the fishermen on the local pier. There is nothing he likes more than cooking, surfing or spending time with his daughter. Frank lives in perfect harmony; that is until an old friend arranges a meeting. Frank did not always run a bait shop, he was once known as Frankie Machine, one of the most ruthless Mafia hit men around. He thought that he had managed to leave that life behind, but someone has a long standing grievance against him. Can Frank discover who is after him, and why, before its too late?
Winslow has once more created a fantastically dark and adult novel that wants you to read it in one uber-session. The writing is of the best quality that I have read in the crime genre and can only be matched by another of my favourites Robert Ferrigno. Winter is very noirish and has the same great pacing that made some of the best genre films from the 40s and 50s. For the first 50 pages very little happens in the book but we slowly get to know the character of Frank. Winslow is not scared to force the reader into working for their enjoyment. In most cases I would find 50 pages of character development excessive and boring, however, such is the calibre of Winslows writing that every subtle nuance is a joy. It is with great success that Winslow is able to make us care for his characters so deeply that the tension throughout the rest of the book is heightened.
The narrative structure is also excellent. Initially you think the book is going to be a straight forward read through, but it soon become apparent that a lot of the book will be told via flashbacks. This works really well and lets Winslow return to the Mafia hey days of the 60s and 70s whilst still commenting on their modern position. The book is structured like a film and it does not come as any surprise to me that Robert DeNiro has reportedly bought the rights for a film version. I dont think that any screen writer would have trouble adapting this for the big screen.
Another area that is developed well in the book is the reflective nature of age that permeates throughout. The book is about the final years in Frankies life and how he reflects on knowing that there are more years behind him than ahead. Even the title; The Winter of Frankie Machine, invokes a feeling of a cold end. Winslow is able to use this theme throughout as Frank visits old haunts and meets people he knew years ago. The sense of memory and nostalgia is really well laid out and adds extra depth to a book that could have easily fallen onto the trap of being an empty action thriller. And this book does have thrills. Although older, Frank is still a dangerous man, therefore when he is forced to defend himself he has the capable skills to do so. This leads to several standout action sequences that have real attention to detail. These are only heightened by Winslows slow build up as the reader truly comes to care about the characters involved.
Despite all my praises I did have a couple of small issues with the book that meant it was not quite up to The Power of the Dog. I became slightly confused towards the end as the pace picked up a little too quickly for me. I also felt that it did not have the epic feel of Dog and was more comparable to Goodfellas; which is not bad thing. However, comparing any book to The Power of the Dog is a foolhardy exercise as it remains one of my all time favourite reads. The Winter of Frankie Machine still holds up as one of the best books I have ever read and gives the action crime genre much needed character and heart.
Author: Don Winslow
Price: amazon uk - £8.39
play.com - £8.78
Frank Machianno is the guy, a late-middle-aged ex-surf bum who runs a bait shack on the San Diego waterfront. That's when he's not juggling any of his other three part-time jobs or trying to get a quick set in on his long board. He's a beloved fixture of the community, a stand-up businessman, a devoted father to his daughter. Frank's also a hit man. Well, a retired hit man. Back in the day, when he was one of the most feared members of the West Coast mob, he was known as Frankie Machine. Years ago, Frank consigned his mob ties to the past, which is where he wants them to stay. But a favor called in by the local boss is one Frank simply can't refuse, and before he knows it, he's sucked back into the treacherous currents of his former life. Someone from his past wants him dead, and he has to figure out who, and why, and he has to do it fast. The problem is that the list of candidates is about the size of his local phone book and Frank's rapidly running out of time.