Don Winslow has long been a force to be reckoned with in crime fiction. Novels such as Savages and The Winter of Frankie Machine have been hailed to much acclaim. To my mind though it was his duo of titles on the Mexican drug wars that elevated him into the A-list. The Power of the Dog and its sequel The Cartel, were rightly seen as masterpieces, sagas that chronicled the rise of the drug cartels, the narcotic border wars, the corruption and devastation they wrought on Mexican society. It’s no surprise to learn that The Cartel is set to be made into a film, with Ridley Scott as director and Leonardo di Caprio as lead. Nor does it come as a shock to learn that Winslow himself is now one of the hottest writers around. For example, the director Michael Mann is now in collaboration with Winslow to write a novel about the relationship between the infamous organised crime figures, Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana.
In the meantime, we have The Force. If anyone thought that Winslow would rest on his laurels after the success of The Cartel, then The Force should rudely strip them of that notion. Denny Malone is a legendary NYPD detective sergeant, he’s “the King of Manhattan North”, the unofficial leader of The Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite squad of officers whose job it is to keep a lid on crime in the city, allowing the wheels of commerce to keep turning in the post-Rudy Giulliani, zero-tolerance era. He’s a corrupt officer, as most of his squad are, but they’re not wicked as such. Their corruption has a pragmatic quality, a weary knowingness that all around them others are profiting – drug dealers, most obviously, but also politicians and property developers – and they’re own skimming is just a means of looking after their families, supplementing their meagre incomes.
Throughout though, there’s a sense that the situation as it stands is ephemeral, that Denny and his squad are living on borrowed time. Winslow is a master plotter and is adept at building tension. Obstacles and adversaries mount: the rival taskforce detective who wants Denny’s crown, the approaching drug war between two rival syndicates, the boss who knows he’s corrupt but wants results, the investigators breathing down his neck. The novel starts with Denny in a cell having been arrested, so we the reader know this is all going to come a head, the questions is how and will Denny and his squad emerge the other side?
Some might read this review and think that there’s nothing original here, that TV series such as The Wire and The Shield, films and other novels, have covered similar ground before. To an extent, they would be right. But Winslow elevates The Force above much of the competition, through both his skill as a storyteller, and his original slant. There are two aspects that make The Force special. The first is that this novel is set very firmly in 2017. Black Lives Matter and the tensions caused by police shootings across the Unites States are constantly in the background. But perhaps more importantly for the story’s narrative is the modernity of the City of New York. Gone are the crime ridden days of the 1970’s and 80’s where New York was almost written off as a bankrupt hellhole. 2017 New York is a place of million dollar condos, gentrification, with the poor and disenfranchised firmly kept in their place. In fact, Winslow creates the firm impression that the NYPD’s job as whole, that of Denny’s taskforce in particular, is exactly to enforce this status quo so that the wealthy can continue earning and enjoying the lifestyles that they’ve grown accustomed to. This brings me to the second aspect that elevates this novel beyond the norm and that’s the sense of place Winslow conjures. Normally, when a writer talks of sense of place, they mean setting. So, an author will set a novel in New York, describe streets, smells, vernacular, etc. At its worst this can take a form of tick box travelogue. In Winslow’s novel on the other hand, we get a sense of New York not just as a physical locale, but as a socio-political environment. There’s simply nowhere else this novel could be set. Winslow’s The Force is more than just a crime novel set in the city of New York, it’s a critique of what makes that city tick.
In conclusion, I’ve read quite a few of Don Winslow’s novels. Some I’ve enjoyed more than others, some have been better than others. I loved The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, thought them both crowning achievements, but the Force is his best yet. The Force is also Winslow’s most subversive book to date, it’s imbued with subtle but ever-present anger and outrage, something which is even more effective in a crime novel. Where a ‘literary’ novel which wears its social conscience on its sleeve might be wearying, when done well, as Winslow does here, a crime novel can distract with the obvious crimes – the drug dealing, the robberies, the murders – while feeding the reader a steady diet of indignity at the more insidious crimes of the powerful. This Winslow does with aplomb. I read recently that The Force too has been optioned by 20th Century Fox. This is yet something else to not come as a surprise. For truly, The Force is to date Winslow’s magnum opus.