When I think of San Diego I picture it as I saw it when visiting while young: bright sun, tall palms and the bright ocean rolling implacably off to the west. I never saw it as a navy town, despite the obvious presence of all those big ships and guys in white uniforms. I was too busy using it as a border town, a crossing point to Mexico and Baja and the cheap booze and seafood and fireworks and beaches that were my real goal. It never occurred to me that a navy town and a border town could be a corrupt town. As I said, I was young.
It's hard to ignore the corruption of California's southernmost county now, all you have to do is turn on the news. Congressmen resign in disgrace, and industrialists and financiers tremble as webs of kickbacks and schemes become public. It could be DC if it weren't for the weather. I didn't get my knowledge of the crooked south from the news though; I got it from a couple of really good Southern California writers, T. Jefferson Parker and Don Winslow. Winslow has a new book on the shelves, The Winter of Frankie Machine, with a couple of my favorite literary themes -- the beach and hit men. It's a combination I don't see often enough, although I have high hopes for the latest Anthony Bourdain, who, like me, thinks about killers in flip flops.
Frankie Machianno has a good life. He has a girlfriend he loves, an ex-wife that doesn't drive him too crazy, and a daughter bound for medical school. He's a well-liked guy on the pier, dispensing bait and good advice from his shop. He's busy, with a real estate side business and season tickets to the opera and an ex who likes to put the wrong things down the garbage disposal. Frankie makes time to surf though, grabbing his board for Gentlemen's Hour, or the Geezer Hour depending on what side of the invisible age line you stand -- or surf -- on. It's hard being Frankie, but good, too.
What Frankie doesn't advertise is his past, because Frankie Machianno used to be known as Frankie Machine, an unstoppable hit man for the local mob. All this was behind him; he'd quit that life years ago. He wasn't happy when his past returned to ask him for a favor, a little babysitting job, but he did it. Family ties like that are hard to break. What did surprise him is that it was a setup. The body count rises quickly as Frankie tries to settle his problem without alerting authorities that would have liked him to stay retired. Bodies attract authorities, though, and soon enough Frankie is running from everyone.
Winslow writes a tight, exciting novel, with twists and turns wrapped up in a mantel of reality that comes from his knowledge of local history and his own career as an investigator. He's good at lifting up rocks and telling the stories of what crawls out. He doesn't telegraph the ending and his surprises aren't forced. His characters are not caricatures, but are sympathetic and human and flawed and most of all believable. I never thought the mafia might be in San Diego, but then I've been accused of being naive before. I buy the marketing, Winslow doesn't. The San Diego Chamber of Commerce and Don Winslow both have stories to tell. I'm guessing The Winter of Frankie Machine is a more accurate picture.
Galley Slave Galley Watch:
The Weight of Numbers by Simon Ings
Threads of coincidence and history weave all over the world, connecting African revolutions, London philosophical societies, and the glittery-fake world of celebrity and art. Choice and belief are far more slippery concepts than we think, and random and inevitable two sides of a coin in this smart and compelling novel. Due in January from Grove Atlantic.