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April 27, 2012 / John Sheridan

Review/Forgotten Book: A Cool Breeze on the Underground by Don Winslow


Having recently posted about the upcoming The Kings of Cool it prompted me to dig one of Don Winslow’s earlier novels out of my TBR pile. A Cool Breeze on the Underground was nominated for an Edgar award back in 1992 for best first novel but didn’t collect the prize. It was the first of five novels to feature Neal Carey, a grad student and unlicensed PI – at least in this one, I don’t know how things may develop over the remainder of the series as they’re still resident in the TBR pile. Generally speaking I think that though the Neal Carey novels were well enough regarded they didn’t sell that well and it wasn’t until the author started to spread his wings more and to produce some more challenging material that he became successful so while this is a good PI novel and features appealing characters it doesn’t have the same breadth of vision or effortless cool of some of his other works such as The Power of the Dog (Amazon UK) or The Dawn Patrol (Amazon UK).

Written in the first person with flashbacks interspersed to explain elements of Neal’s backstory (these are handled deftly and add rather than detract from the story). He has essentially been abandoned by his junkie mother as she works the streets to feed her habit. As a consequence he fends for himself by means of picking pockets until he picks the wrong pocket – that of one Joe Graham PI who happens to spot some potential and takes him under his wing to train and also (by virtue of his connections with the owners of a bank who like to solve any problems their clients may encounter in-house) to educate him which serves to explain how a grad student is also a part-time PI and is needed to find the runaway daughter of a senator with vice-presidential aspirations. But the case isn’t that straightforward unfortunately as allegations of incest surface and as with most politicians you can never be sure what side of the aisle he’s on – the problem needs to be solved but whether that’s by her returning or disappearing forever is a delicate question. For Neal though it’s a case of if you can’t trust your client you better watch your back especially when you’re overseas in London and there’s a potent mix of rare books, drugs, prostitution and Chinese gangs. Not to mention potentially falling in love with the target.

Here’s an excerpt from a Don Winslow Interview in which he discusses the Neal Carey series: “The inspiration behind the Neal Carey series was real easy. I was a graduate student trying to get an advanced degree in history and I couldn’t attend classes because I was working as a P.I. and I was always being sent out on cases, and that’s just like Neal Carey. A lot of the cases I was being sent out on were called in those days were called Golden Retriever work–go fetch, go get em–runaway teenagers, business men who were off on a drunken tear somewhere and it was my job to find them and bring them back. And so when I first started to get serious about writing I was doing a lot of things to make a living: I was a PI, I was a safari guide, I was directing Shakespeare in the summer’s at Oxford, believe it or not, and so I took that old thing “write what you know.” I loved the crime genre, you know I was reading John McDonald and Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler and those guys and so I said okay, I’ll write about a graduate student who can’t finish his degree because he was being sent out on cases.”

My rating for A Cool Breeze on the Underground is 4 out of 5.

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