Why does Don Winslow get good reviews?
December 17, 2017 5:36 AM   Subscribe

I was excited to pick up The Cartel by Don Winslow. And then I started reading it...

I typically read more literary stuff and it was interesting to see a crime novel endorsed by NY Times book of the year selection and the LA Time's writing prize. 100 pages in and I'm ready to quit. The writing is no better than a Dan Brown novel, the story has no interesting characters and the plot is over-explained as if the target audience average age is about seven. Obviously it's just not my cup of tea but I'm really confounded as to how this type of book gets positive reviews by serious critics. Is it just because of the serious nature of the subject matter? Is the rest of the crime genre just that bad? Something else? Also, does anyone have any recommendations for crime novels that might work for someone who expects decent writing to accompany the plot?
posted by the foreground to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I don’t normally go for crime novels, but I liked several of The Saint stories. Lots of capers and cleverness, some witty writing. Also Dashiell Hammet is still widely read for a reason. Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing are still circulated and used effectively. So try some classics is my main suggestion.

As for the rest: you answered your own question in my opinion. You live in a world where Dan Brown and his ilk are hugely famous very rich and widely praised, so it should be no surprise that some highly praised work is utter dreck in your opinion.

My guess is Winslow is just ‘fun’, and people aren’t asking/looking for the things you are when they say it’s good stuff.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:54 AM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't say Dan Brown is widely-praised. I would say he's widely-mocked. He doesn't get good reviews. He just makes lots of money.

I don't know if it qualifies as a crime novel, but how about An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:18 AM on December 17, 2017 [7 favorites]

The Cartel is a sequel to The Power of The Dog so it has to do some extra exposition and narrative bridgework at the beginning, and won’t be as engaging if you haven’t read that previous novel.

Winslow’s earlier lighter crime novels are among my favorites, in particular The Dawn Patrol and The Gentlemen’s Hour but also The Death and Life of Bobby Z.
posted by nicwolff at 6:24 AM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

In this gleefully erudite suspense novel, Mr. Brown takes the format he has been developing through three earlier novels and fine-tunes it to blockbuster perfection.
--That's what the NY Times had to say about The Davinci code. Their review is gushing with praise.

The whole point is that praise and scorn can comfortably coexist. Literally millions of people buy Brown's (or Winslow's) books and say "Hey, you should read this book, it's great!" Maybe OP and many of us don't care for popcorn fun books to read on the beach, but billions of people do, and that's why they get good reviews. Brown and Winslow are well liked because they give people something they want, it's as simple as that.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:29 AM on December 17, 2017 [10 favorites]

Is the rest of the crime genre just that bad?

If you’re talking about things like characterisation and stylish prose, yes. At least Winslow doesn’t have anything as memorably bad as “Let’s try the kanji,” and his writing is mostly functional and readable.

Ian Rankin’s Rebus series has some decent writing, and I really enjoyed the stretch from Black and Blue to The Falls. Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series tries to do something a little different with the classic detective novel. James Ellroy’s LA Quartet is a fascinating mess that attempts to use the crime novel to capture the history of Los Angeles, but I would add a cw because sometimes Ellroy goes from portraying period-typical homophobia and racism into wallowing in it.

I also enjoyed The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, but I’ve been told they are boring, so there’s that.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:30 AM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I’ve been listening to the Harry Bosch series on audiobook, and they’re entertaining. I also just finished Dan Brown’s Origin and enjoyed it, because the story drew a vibrant picture of Spain that I really haven’t encountered in any of the books I’ve read, and it touches on some interesting ethical issues in a cool way. I would peg the Bosch series as having more depth, mainly because Bosch as a character is far more fully fleshed out than Robert Langdon, who is basically a professor of symbology in a tweed coat and that’s all we know about him. The Bosch series is also older, so you’re going back to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, where people don’t have cell phones, communicate mainly by paper, and where the psychological hangups of middle age were frequently as a result of serving in Vietnam.

But they’re good, gritty detective stories if one enjoys such a thing.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:29 AM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've really enjoyed Louise Penny's writing.
posted by bq at 8:31 AM on December 17, 2017

English professors I knew in grad school liked P.D. James and Dorothy Sayers. Sayers’ Gaudy Night is a murder mystery set in a fictional women’s college in Oxford. It is definitely well written. Seconding Dashiell Hammett. Also Raymond Chandler, especially The Big Sleep.
posted by FencingGal at 8:34 AM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Is the rest of the crime genre just that bad?

If you’re talking about things like characterisation and stylish prose, yes.

NO. No, no, no.

What OP wants are the crime fiction writers I call genre-transcenders. See below. Also, pick up a copy of Best American Mystery Stories--it doesn't matter which year, they're bound to have some great stuff.

Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine): psychological suspense and crime. She was a very good, very prolific novelist, to my joy, and she died a few years ago, to my sorrow.

P.D. James: similar to Rendell (but not as compulsively readable, IMO)

Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series: police procedurals written over 50-odd years. It's all the same book, really, but watch how the characters, the crimes, the city changes. (McBain is a pseudonym for Evan Hunter, who wrote The Blackboard Jungle and The Birds. Hunter is a pseudonym too. His real name was Salvatore Lombino, and when he was starting out in the pulps in the 50s, an editor told him to use a pseudonym because his own name was too Italian.)

Patricia Highsmith: the bizarre reality underneath the proper surface

Margaret Millar

Tana French

Colin Harrison--the prose in "Manhattan Nocturne" is entrancing

Richard Price

Joyce Carol Oates ("Daddy Love" is absolutely terrifying, and old Joyce has literary bona fides up the wazoo)

Dennis Lehane

Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish)

James M. Cain

Jim Thompson

Raymond Chandler

This should hold you, Foreground. Have fun, and don't take any wooden nickels.
posted by scratch at 9:32 AM on December 17, 2017 [16 favorites]

Two of my favorites not yet mentioned yet:
Walter Mosley http://www.waltermosley.com/
Elmore Leonard
Both writers draw incredible at different things, but rightfully praised.
posted by dbmcd at 9:54 AM on December 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Two other authors to look into:

David Lindsey
John D. MacDonald - including the Travis McGee series, but there are many more

MacDonald’s works often include useful little quotes like:

"You know what a bore is... Someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with companionship."

This National Post article from last year is of interest.
posted by yclipse at 10:11 AM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

John Sandford is the best crime writer in the US right now, ime. He's a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, a good writer and a keen observer of human nature, his books have varied plots and the characters change and grow over time in a satisfying way. Plus he can write women which is where I have issue with a lot of the popular UK writers. And the Harry Bosch books etc.
posted by fshgrl at 10:36 AM on December 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not mentioned yet: Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Megan Abbott, C.J. Box, Donald Westlake, George Pelecanos, Ace Atkins, Paul Doiron.

New people I like: Joe Ide, Nicholas Petrie.

Checking out the Edgar awards winners might be fruitful.

(And, although I'm no fan of the name, the idea of the Sci-Fi Ghetto can easily be applied to mystery/crime fiction.

Stuff like 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle,' 'The Name of the Rose,' 'Motherless Brooklyn,' and 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union' doesn't get put in the mystery/crime genre, even though they meet the usual genre definitions, because Serious Authors.)
posted by box at 10:53 AM on December 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

A lot of good things get great reviews that I think are terrible, or at least not worthy of the heaping amounts of praise they get. A look at any of the Best Books of 2017 have several books on them that I thought were, not amazing. There are many reasons for this, I imagine: discoverability issues for new titles, the publishing industry is a small world, different strokes for different folks, and sometimes I'm just not the target audience for a book.

I like Elizabeth George. Seconding Dennis Lehane (except for his last book, which was pretty bad) and Joe Ide, although again, I don't know if Joe Ide is "good writing" as much as it was entertaining.
posted by lyssabee at 11:01 AM on December 17, 2017

You might want to check out some of the answers to this question I asked last year.

I can't tell you why this particular book got such good reviews, but remember that reviewers are human and we all like things for all kinds of reasons. This book may have just pushed all the right buttons for a particular influential NYT reviewer. And one good review in a major publication can result in a lot of bandwagonning.
posted by 256 at 11:32 AM on December 17, 2017

The Harry Bosch novels are by Michael Connelly. I forgot that rather necessary tidbit of information in my earlier post.
posted by Autumnheart at 3:32 PM on December 17, 2017

I almost never read crime fiction but last year I read a glowing review of the new edition of Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze. It's excellent.

I love Megan Abbott too.
posted by Jeanne at 3:56 PM on December 17, 2017

I've recently read a few by George Pelecanos. Mostly set in and around DC, they're generally not exclusively focused on one main character (à la Harry Bosch, which I've also enjoyed), and one book will look at the lives of criminals, police and the working man.

Even though DC is not a city I know, they also paint a convincing and evocative picture (to me) of a place in time.

Taking all these factors into consideration, it's not a surprise to then find out that he worked extensively on The Wire (along with Dennis Lehane who is also on this list).
posted by jontyjago at 6:31 AM on December 18, 2017

Why does Don Winslow get good reviews?
Because people, by and large, are only sort of literate.
Is the rest of the crime genre just that bad?
Kinda. If you want solidly written stuff in that genre, it's hard. Someone mentioned Ian Rankin, and that's a good tip. Tana French's books about the Dublin Murder Squad are genuinely great (and inventive; it's not a "series" in the sense that word is usually used, as each entry has a different focal character from the same broad group of people).

Robert Parker's Spenser books are simpler, but they're also better constructed than they usually get credit for. They're still airport-level reads, but good ones.
posted by uberchet at 6:33 AM on December 18, 2017

I just started reading The Cartel the other day for the same reasons as you. I've also been wondering about all the high praise it's getting. The writing is workmanlike at best, and hoo boy the "loose cannon" DEA agent who retreats to a monastery to become a beekeeper because he's OUT OF THE BIZ... just so hokey. I figure it's the depth of detail surrounding the way the cartels work that has attracted notice. While that is interesting, I don't know if it will keep me going with it. I mean, I might as well read a better non-fiction book about the topic.

I recently read The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty, which is a police procedural set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. While there were some of the standard genre tropes, McKinty is a good writer and makes the most of the pressure cooker background setting. I believe it was suggested here on AskMe!

While not strictly crime, do give John Le Carré's George Smiley novels a try if you haven't already. As I read The Cartel, I am noting parallels with those books, especially having just reread The Honourable Schoolboy. Both Winslow and Le Carré outline two forces trying to outmaneuver each other on a large scale, but Le Carré is such a better writer, in every respect. He's the master at the slow boil. And George Smiley is just one of the best fictional characters I've ever encountered.
posted by picea at 10:19 AM on December 18, 2017

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