Two novellas by Don Wilson: ‘Broken’ and ‘Crime 101’

After reading ‘The San Diego Zoo’, I’d been meaning to ration my consumption of the six novellas in Don Winslow’s collection, ‘Broken’, spacing them out between novels by other people, taking my time with them. But they’re too good for that. I couldn’t stop at just one of these two-hour novellas so, today. I listened to two of them.

Stepping into a Don Winslow story is like stepping into a fast-flowing river; it has somewhere to go and it’s determined to take you there and the best thing to do is to give yourself up to the current and see where you end up.

The two stories I listened to today, ‘Broken’ and ‘Crime 101’ were very different in style and intent but they were both propulsive narratives with strong, smart characters who, nevertheless seem to be running towards disaster.

‘Broken’ is a bleak, violent, rage-driven story that follows the structure of a classical tragedy where a personality flaw dooms the hero to become his worst self.

The hero is Jimmy McNab. He leads a crack team in the Narcotics Unit of the Special Investigations Unit. Jimmy runs his team like his own private gang, making war on the narcotics dealers. He is an angry, aggressive, dangerous man who inspires and expects fierce loyalty from his team. He’s at the peak of his power. He’s just run a dangerous but successful operation that snags a record-breaking amount of drugs. Then he gives in to hubris and sends a message to the drug dealer he’s just hit: ‘Jimmy McNab Says Hello‘. Those four words doom him and the people around him. What follows is an act of brutality that cryies out for bloody revenge, regardless of the cost.

Normally, I’m not a fan of violent stories about the conflict between the police and drug dealers. Too often, they’re just an excuse for a bloody montage of violence and sadism. ‘Broken’ has all of that but three things make it stand out. Firstly, this is a story that is more about emotions – pride. grief, rage – than about the violence that accompanies them. Secondly, the language of the story, which sounds as if it comes straight from the mouth of a seasoned cop explaining something tragic but inevitable, increases the emotional impact of the events. Thirdly, the story focuses not just on how and where Jimmy McNab and the world he lives in are broken but also on whether there is, amongst all that rage and hate, any possibility of Jimmy McNab finding the strength to reject his doom.

I can see why this is the title story of the ‘Broken’ collection. I would buy the book for this novella alone.

‘Crime 101’ is very different from ‘Broken’. It’s the story of a very clever, very careful jewellery thief, responsible and the Police Lieutenant who is trying to catch him.

The story is dedicated to Steve McQueen. Both the thief and the police detective reference ‘Bullitt’, ¨The Getaway’ and ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’. The thief works alone, has a set of ‘Crime 101’ rules that he always follows and only goes after high-value targets that he can hit quickly and take without using violence. He’s a loner who plans well, avoids leaving patterns and who never takes risks. His passion is driving the 101 along the coast of California in powerful American cars, including a 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt replica in Dark Highland Green. The thief is so careful that only the Lieutenant in charge of robbery in San Diego believes he exists.

I loved the way this story evoked the cool style of the Steve McQueen movies. It was the kind of solo heist story where I found myself hoping that the thief would get away with it but where I could also see his chances lessening every day. While I admired the thief for his discipline, focus and aversion to violence, I liked the Police Lieutenant, a bookish man, with a penchant for reading history and watching old movies. I liked that he had a lot in common with the thief without being a mirror of him. I believed in the lives of both men and almost hoped that they wouldn’t meet.

The plot is beautifully intricate. I loved the foreshadowing and the surprises and the open inclusion of the Steve McQueen vibe. I especially loved the ending. It turned out that ‘Crime 101’ was as good as a Steve McQueen movie.

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