The King of Cool, Don Winslow

How the SoCal transplant became a best-selling author by delving into Laguna Beach's legends

Although he can't recall a time when he didn't want to be a writer, Winslow didn't publish his first book until relatively late in life, after he'd already sampled several other careers: a theater manager in New York, a safari guide in Kenya and a private investigator. His cases typically involved arson and fraud but also the occasional murder or child abuse, and they often took him to California.

Winslow still remembers the first time he came to Laguna Beach. It was 1990, and he had the day off from work, so he drove from his Costa Mesa hotel down to Pacific Coast Highway, and then headed south from Corona del Mar, hoping to arrive at some friends' house in coastal San Diego County in time for dinner. When he reached Crystal Cove, Winslow pulled over. "Holy God," he thought to himself. "I've never seen anything like this."

He ate lunch at a restaurant that is now Laguna Cliffs Inn; he dined on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches served by unreconstructed hippie waitresses. Then he drove to Dana Point, bought a bottle of wine at a liquor store near the marina, and called his wife, who was at home in Connecticut. "Babe, you've got to come out here," he begged.

A still from Savages
Francois Duhamel
A still from Savages
On a Savages set in Laguna Beach
Francois Duhamel
On a Savages set in Laguna Beach

For the next three years, he and Jean lived out of hotels, their bills expensed by the law firms who were paying Winslow's investigator salary. Jean birthed a son, who is now in college and volunteering for the Obama campaign, and they eventually bought a condo in Dana Point before moving to a ranch near Julian, a rural town in northern San Diego County. Somehow, Winslow also found time to write several mystery books, the first of which, 1991's A Cool Breeze On the Underground, won a prestigious Edgar Award. But none of them would pay the bills.

Everything changed with The Death and Life of Bobby Z, published by Knopf in 1997, which led to a three-book deal that allowed him to become a full-time writer. Winslow wrote the book on the train between San Juan Capistrano and downtown LA's Union Station, during his commute to and from his day job. Each leg of the journey took just more than an hour, and Winslow wrote one chapter per trip, two per day. "When I'd hear the conductor say, 'Union Station, 10 minutes,' whatever was happening in that chapter, I'd wrap it up," he recalls. "It worked miracles."

Bobby Z was also Winslow's first book to probe Laguna Beach's notorious past as a drug-dealing mecca. The namesake character is an almost mythical marijuana smuggler who has presumably died in Thailand but whose legend lives on, particularly in the hallucinations of a character nicknamed One Way, a homeless casualty of the acid-drenched 1960s. One Way wanders up and down the coast heralding Bobby's imminent arrival by sailboat with an epic haul of weed.

Although Winslow's characters are fictional, much of what they experience is real, even the most spectacularly violent episodes Winslow offers up in books such as 2005's Power of the Dog, his drug-war masterpiece chronicling the rise of the Mexican cartels, or, for that matter, Kings of Cool, which features a cop-turned-cartel-assassin who writes warnings for his opponents in the entrails of his victims. "My editor would say, 'Oh, that's over the top,'" Winslow recalls. "And I'd say, 'Oh, I absolutely agree, but it's what happened."

Some of the anecdotes in Kings of Cool—characters who hand out free tacos to runaway kids, teenagers sleeping in caves, laundering cash and selling joints to support their newfound family—are familiar from Orange Sunshine, which Winslow kindly cites in his book's acknowledgments, along with The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, published in the 1980s by British journalists Stewart Tendler and David May.

But some of the most compelling material in his book, Winslow says, comes straight from just hanging out and meeting interesting people. "It's funny," he muses, pointing downhill at Laguna's Main Beach, which is where the first day of filming took place for Savages. "I've taken location scouts around here, and they flip because it's right out of the book—guys playing volleyball and girls watching them, or girls playing volleyball and guys watching."

On previous books, Winslow adds, he grew tired of editors telling him that real people didn't talk like his characters. "You get on an airplane, you fly to San Diego or John Wayne Airport, and if I can't put you in front of these people in half an hour, you win the argument," Winslow says. "Of course they never take you up on it because you can't get them across the Hudson."

One of the most harrowing passages in Kings of Cool, Winslow claims, comes straight from the mouth of one of his friends who grew up in Laguna in the 1970s. The son of a pot dealer, he recalled how some of his father's "friends" picked him up one day and drove him out to the desert, where they held him hostage at a safe house. As it turned out, the friend's dad owed the men a large quantity of cash. He spent a weekend drinking beer with his captors and flipping through porno magazines until his dad came up with the cash. "That happened up right there," Winslow says, nodding at the hillsides above Laguna Canyon.

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