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Onyx reviews: The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

The Dawn Patrol is the name a group of early morning surfers gives to themselves. They are a motley crew: a cop, a former-cop-turned-PI, a lifeguard, a Samoan-American built like a sumo wrestler (he works for the Department of Public Works), and Sunny Day, the only female in the group, who works the morning shift at a restaurant and is the best surfer of the lot. When they aren't on the water, they discuss mundane things like waves and whether female canoe teams rank above or below fish tacos on the List of Things That Are Good.

The surfers all have nicknames, of course. The lifeguard is Dave the Love God, as much a tourist stop for young ladies from colder climes as Sea World. Hang Twelve has two extra toes—they give him better board grip, he claims. The enormous Samoan is called High Tide, because of his effect on the water level when he gets in.

The ex-cop is Boone Daniels. His departure from the police force was less than amicable, and his PI shingle is almost a token gesture. He works only enough to keep himself alive, in the water, and in fish tacos—because everything tastes good on a taco. He's reminiscent of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, a beach bum taking his retirement in installments. Boone likes to pretend he's a devil-may-care rogue, but he is haunted by the case that got away—the kidnapping of a young girl named Rain that went south after he refused to let Harrington, his partner at the time, torture the pedophile who was their prime suspect. Every day, Boone wonders if he'll ever find out what happened to the girl.

An underwater earthquake near Alaska has generated a deepwater wave that will arrive in a few days. Waves like these come only once in a generation. For most of the Dawn Patrol, it means an epic ride. If Sunny catches the big wave and is captured on film, though, it means she can go pro. What that means for her on-again/off-again relationship with Boone is never discussed.

Boone isn't interested in taking on a new case when Petra Hall, a lawyer from a firm he often works for, shows up at his office two days before the waves arrive. The firm wants him to track down a stripper who is supposed to testify the next day on behalf of an insurance company challenging a claim filed by a local gangster whose warehouse burned down. However, Petra is an up-and-comer in the firm, not the kind of woman who takes no for an answer, and Boone is getting behind on his rent and other bills. Besides, though she's kind of annoying, Boone is begrudgingly attracted to Petra.

Tamara Roddick has good reason to disappear, as Boone discovers when one of her colleagues from the strip club is escorted over the balcony to her death at a fleabag hotel in a probable case of mistaken identity. Tamara is doing a good job of making herself scarce, and she has an unlikely ally: a plastic surgeon named Teddy D-Cup Cole who is apparently interested in more than implanting saline in her chest.

Though Johnny "Banzai" Kodani, the Japanese-American cop, and Boone share waves every morning, they sometimes find themselves on opposite sides of Boone's cases. As Winslow says, "They inhabit roughly the same professional sphere, and there are times when the Venn diagram intersects." They try to keep business and pleasure separate, but it's not always easy, especially when Boone withholds evidence. The have a special surfer rule to cover situations like this, the "jump-in rule." If Boone and Johnny find themselves on the same wave—or on the same case—it's on. You do what you have to do and it's nothing personal.

Boone and his former partner, Harrington, are like cats and dogs, Hatfields and McCoys. This leads to increased friction between Boone and Johnny, especially at crime scenes. Boone doesn't always keep the best company, either. He has an uneasy friendship with a Hawaiian drug dealer named Red Eddie he once did a solid favor for. When Eddie suggests that Boone drop his search for Tamara, Boone realizes there's more going on than insurance fraud. Unbeknownst to him, there's a second Dawn Patrol operating in the strawberry fields up the coast that is up to something far more nefarious than catching waves.

The Dawn Patrol compares favorably with the Florida novels of Hiaasen and features scintillating dialog reminiscent of Elmore Leonard. Chapters average about two pages, with some only a few lines in length. The narrative voice Winslow adopts is casual, almost conversational, littered with surfer speak (surfbonics, Winslow calls it) and deep insight into surfer culture, and the history and evolution of San Diego and its environs. Each member of the Dawn Patrol has an interesting side story that exposes the truth behind the superficial bliss of their lives. Temptations that threaten to seduce them away from their lives of apparent ease.

Storms are often used as metaphors for change. Boone's case threatens to tear apart the Dawn Patrol as the awesome waves bear down on the coast. While the epic surfing experience was once the only thing on Boone's mind, he thinks about it less and less as he becomes involved in his investigation because he's much more than a beach bum—he's a guy with a conscience and a moral compass that always seems to point him in the right direction, even if he doesn't always play by the rules to get there.

Winslow, a former PI himself, clearly loves his characters and everything about surfing and SoCal. He loves the smell of the wax, the easy-going lifestyle and the music, though he blames the Beach Boys for bringing about the downfall of the pure beach culture by attracting everyone to the coast—the Eagles song "The Last Resort" resonates more strongly with him. Calling a place Paradise is its death knell.

The actual plot of The Dawn Patrol has some nice twists and turns, but it's mostly an "epic crunching macky" wave, carrying the characters along and allowing them to show their colors as they attempt feats of daring and display. Though it is a standalone novel, the characters have the kind of legs that would do well in a series, and it would be a shame if Winslow decided to retire them after just a single outing.

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