Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review of Isle of Joy by Don Winslow (Arrow, 1996)

After a number of years working for the CIA, smooth, unflappable, Walter Withers – The Great Scandinavian Pimp and Deadly Recruiter – has decided that he needs to return to his beloved New York. Resigning his post, he's accompanied back to the Big Apple with his partner, the diminutive and feisty jazz singer, Anne Blanchard, to take a suit and tie job with Forbes and Forbes as a personnel investigator. By day he snoops into the personal lives of corporate men for a hint of potential scandal or industry infidelity that might jeopardise their promotion prospects. At night he trails round the jazz haunts and bohemian joints of Greenwich. Then on Christmas Eve, 1958, he’s asked to be the bodyguard for Madeline Keneally, wife of presidential hopeful, Senator Joe Keneally. Both Keneallys have secrets to hide and both take Walter into their confidence. Then Joe Keneally’s secret, minor movie star Marta Marlund, dies in mysterious circumstances in a hotel room registered in Walter’s name. In short order, New York homicide, the FBI and the CIA are all hounding Withers, anxious for a scandal that will give them control of a senator on the rise.

Winslow is one of those rare writers that is relatively sparse with prose and yet fully visualises a scene in the mind of the reader. His characters are fully formed, complex, engaging, and have emotional depth. The dialogue is realistic and pitch perfect. The balance between story and back story is just right. And the historical context of McCarthy/Hoover era 1958 is well judged. The Keneallys – the womanising Joe, the protective Jimmy, and the beautiful Madeline, are well realised mimics of the Jack, Bob and Jackie Kennedy, which gives most of the story its seeming authenticity. I loved everything about this book except for the end, which spiralled to the farcical. Winslow tries to take every character in the book and weave them into a sequence which was largely unnecessary except as a narrative device and became more and more improbable. For me this was a shame, as Winslow is undoubtedly a very fine writer and the Isle of Joy was for the main a great read.

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