Don Winslow. 2017.
“’Life is trying to kill us.” She says. Life, Malone thinks, is trying to kill everyone. And it always succeeds. Sometimes before you die.”
“How do you cross the line?” asks Denny Malone, respected hero cop, task force leader, fixer, heroin dealer, murderer.
His answer is simple, “Step by step.”
Don Winslow’s searing New York cop drama isn’t one for simple answers though. This boisterous, thrilling novel is a shattering indictment of police and executive privilege, racial inequality and the often-contradictory nature of keeping modern day society ‘safe’. It asks, almost dispassionately, ‘Come walk in my shoes, do what I do, and see what you would do in my place.’
Malone is the King of the Manhattan North Task Force, colloquially known as ‘Da Force’ a special unit nominally assigned to get drugs and guns off the street; but which all those in it treat like a license to print money. Malone and his three crew members own the streets and everything on them. Think Copland by way of The Shield, run by Macbeth.
What makes this more than a simple re-tread is Malone and his crew deeply care about doing their job and cleaning up their part of the neighbourhood, but see nothing wrong in creaming a little extra off the top. After all, everyone does it. What’s the harm in an extra couple of grand a madam pays you to look the other way? Someone’s going to take it, might as well be you, right? Given that Malone and his crew branch out into much more dangerous and illegal activity, it becomes harder to reconcile their extracurricular activities with their day job.
Winslow’s narrative is propelled by the knowledge that this situation can’t last. Nominally a ‘fall’ structure, Winslow has immense fun detailing Malone and his crew enjoying the spoils. Given the first half of the book is dedicated to the status quo, not a second is wasted and the tension ratchets up on every page.
Once the FBI, City Hall, his own precinct, even his partners begin to turn on Malone, the pace never flags, with the second half a riotous series of allegiance changes and double bluffs that puts Game of Thrones to shame. Self-loathing and desperation are powerful motivators and Winslow uses every compelling nuance of plot and character to turn the screws in Malone; and does an excellent job of portraying the psychological toll on the tough detective.
As in his previous career high, The Cartel, Winslow expertly sketches the bond of small groups of people under immense pressure, and draws a great deal of tension exploring the cracks in their dynamic. It’s one thing for Malone to hurt himself but quite another to risk bringing down those he loves most in the world.
Winslow replaces The Cartel’s forensic, journalistic tone with a James Ellroy like staccato, abrasive stream of consciousness. Written in third person, the narration is as much a character as Malone, as if it’s the Street watching his every move, commenting, judging, waiting to dispense justice the only way it knows how.
The Force isn’t just Winslow’s best work to date. It’s a snorting, rollicking, wonderful contradiction of a novel. At once unwieldy and tightly plotted, profane and poetic, enlightening and depressing. You wouldn’t expect anything less with a lead character that’s equal parts Serpico and Tony Soprano.
There are some excellent observations on the contradictory nature of police work, the tension between what society requires of you as a cop and what the job actually entails; I.E. ‘We don’t care how you do it, we just care about what you get caught doing.’ Someone has to do the job no one else will.
As Winslow’s lens widens to encompass the entire city we finally understand, this is the cost of doing business, and if you don’t like it, tough.
The chess game between politicians using the police force as scapegoats, or misdirection for its own nefarious deeds, is as fascinating as it is bracingly downbeat. Is the system really this corrupt? You suspect Winslow, like Malone, sees the whole board.
There are no easy ways out, and no easy answers. Everyone is dirty in their own way. When the system is broken, everyone pays.
The Force is out now in Hardback and on 8th March 2018 in Paperback.
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