Heinemann, £12.99 Order for £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Savages, By Don Winslow

Rejoice – Don is back on the drugs

Alaconic New York-born writer, Don Winslow is regarded as one of the best in the field. His sprawling, visceral drug-crime novel, The Power of the Dog, rivalled the grand master of that genre, Robert Stone. Opinion has divided over his recent books, set in California's surfer territory. In them, Winslow has tried (and sometimes succeeded) to suggest that this laid-back community is in possession of more than a single brain cell. But have his admirers' pleas for a return to the massive reach of The Power of the Dog influenced his latest novel, Savages? Violent drug-dealing conflict is back, but now shot through with the mordant humour of his recent surfing novels. The result is quite splendid.

Despite Ben's apparent environmental concerns, he is more than ready to handle big-time marijuana deals with his ex-mercenary friend, Chon, in Laguna Beach. Chon is the muscle, securing their territory against incursions. They share a girlfriend, an Orange County beauty called Ophelia.

Needless to say, everything turns sour. A video arrives, with shots of severed heads suggesting there will be bloody consequences when the Baja cartel moves in. Ophelia is snatched, and Ben and Chon are instructed to hand over the business. It's obvious that they don't stand a chance against such a ruthless nemesis. But guess whether or not they decide to try?

Winslow is not concerned with keeping his readers in a comfortable place, and the challenges begin as he makes us complicit with his less-than-admirable dope-dealing anti-heroes. The badinage of the beleaguered protagonists – one a laid-back save-the-planet type, the other a tough ex-SEAL (between them, a ragbag of SoCal attitudes) – is wonderfully funny. There are also acidic socio-political commentaries on American society, and some nifty wordplay. Winslow has few equals in the latter area.

Film studios are snapping at the author's heels. Robert De Niro has optioned The Winter of Frankie Machine, and Oliver Stone has announced that he will be filming Savages. Stone, whose style as a director is like a blow to the solar plexus, has never been noted for nuance; Don Winslow, however, is a writer for whom nuance and multiple levels are articles of faith. It's to be hoped that he stands behind Oliver Stone – perhaps with a revolver, as Werner Herzog did when filming with Klaus Kinski.

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