The Force by Don Winslow is a haunting and heartbreaking story of greed and violence, inequality and race, crime and injustice, retribution and redemption that reveals the seemingly insurmountable tensions between the police and the diverse citizens they serve.
His old priests might have told him that there are sins of commission and sins of omission, that it’s not always the things you do, but the things you don’t that cost you your soul. That sometimes it’s not the spoken lie but the unspoken truth that opens the door to betrayal.
Don Winslow has a unique voice, one that’s partly shaped by public transit. He said his chapters were short in the early days because he wrote on the train to and from work: a 21-minute ride. Yet, he persisted.
My first Winslow was The Winter of Frankie Machine, about an old wiseguy who just wants to surf but gets pulled back into the life by a mobster’s kid who wants to make a name for himself. No matter if he writes about a silverback mobster, a New York cop, a Mexican journalist, or a woman drug lord who’s twice as ruthless to keep the wolves at bay, he inhabits his characters. If you haven’t read his thriller Savages, you are missing out on a prime piece of crime fiction built on an astute knowledge of drug cartels and a mastery of character. Ben, Chon, and O are unforgettable. His epic The Cartel brings the horror of the drug war to life like no other work of art.
His latest, The Force, takes aim at the role of a police officer in a country that lives with the hypocrisy of needing and using more drugs and painkillers than the rest of the world combined yet labels it a moral failure instead of a mental health crisis.
Denny Malone is New York’s number one cop, an apex predator, and he is dirty as hell. We learn this in the first few breaths, so I am not spoiling anything for you. He armors himself with the usual excuses, but this isn’t a book written to bash cops. Over its many fast-paced pages, Winslow takes us on a tour of a corrupt system that is rotten from the top down and presents Denny as a tragic figure who wants to do right.
As someone who’s father was fired from a police force for stealing, I don’t give dirty cops any sympathy. With great power comes great responsibility. That’s from a comic book, and rightly so. Power corrupts, and to avoid viewing addiction as a disease like other countries, we empower our justice system to wink at the Constitution. No-knock warrants. Drug courts with no jury trial. Plea deals and pre-trial intervention for the connected. And in The Force, we see every ugly facet of this fugazi stone we call a diamond, from the feds to the cops to the street dealers to the judges and the D.A. It’s like five seasons of The Wire compressed into one thrilling novel.
It’s also one of the best New York novels I’ve read in a long time. Lush Life by Richard Price was the Chandlerian romantic novel of modern Manhattan, and The Force is Hammett’s brutal and unforgiving retort.
New York’s the world.
Malone's world, anyway.
He’ll never leave it.
No reason to.
He tried to explain it to Sheila, but how do you do that without bringing her into a world you don’t want to put on her? How do you go from a tenement where the mommy-daddy combo is so fucked up on crack, and you find a baby dead for a week, her feet chewed by rats. and then take your own kids to Chuck E. Cheese’s? You supposed to tell her about that? “Share” that? No, the right thing to do is put a smile on your face and talk to the tire salesmen about the Mets or what-the-fuck-ever because no one wants to hear about that and you don't want to talk about it, you just want to forget it, and good luck with that, ace.
That time Phil and Monty and him get an anonymous tip, 90 to this address in Washington Heights and they find this guy tied to a chair, his hands had been cut off for skimming some smack off the top of a shipment and he was still alive because the people who punished him also perfectly cauterized the wounds with a blowtorch. His eyes were bulging out of his skull, his jaw broken from clenching it so hard, and then they had to go back to a cookout and stand around by the grill with the host like guys do and he and Phil looked at each Other over the grill and knew what each other was thinking. You don’t talk to other cops about that shit because you don't have to. They already know. They’re the only ones who know.
Malone leads “Da Force,” a task force at a precinct encompassing projects, brownstones, and foreign-owned luxury towers—a perfect slice of the City. The King of his domain, he's got partners to keep alive, a family in Staten Island he’s separated from, a mistress in Harlem who’s on and off heroin, and a whiskey and uppers habit of his own. He is a self-destructive male who lost his brother—a fireman when the Towers came down—and he has been self-medicating his PTSD for so long he can barely remember what life was like without it. This is familiar territory for a cop story, but in Winslow’s hands, it is never stale or predictable.
With his arm around your shoulders, lemme-take-you-on-a-tour style, the book feels like one long, uncut Scorsese shot with narration, as Malone visits his subjects, clashes with cops and crooks, and flaunts his power to captains of precinct and industry alike. At first, he is hard to like, but as Winslow peels him apart, petal by petal, I began to root for him. As dirty as he is, he holds the line in a corrupt system that puts street soldiers on tours longer than any GI spends in a war zone. One that gives cursory nods to the treatment of mental health but destroys the careers of anyone who asks for help, due to “liability.” A system that puts one mission on paper and asks for another through its actions.
That’s the bitter, brutal irony about police work.
That’s the root of the love-hate relationship cops have with the community and the community with the police.
The cops see it every day and every night.
The hurt, the dead.
People forget that the cops see first the victims and then the perpetrators. From the baby some crack whore dropped into the bathtub to the kid beat into stupefaction by his mother’s eighteenth live-in boyfriend, the old lady whose hip gets broken when a purse snatcher knocks her to the sidewalk, the fifteen-year-old wannabe dope slinger gunned down on the corner.
The cops feel for the vics and hate the perps, but they can’t feel too much or they can’t do their jobs and they can’t hate too much or they’ll become the perps. So they develop a shell, a “we hate everybody” attitude force field around themselves that everyone can feel from ten feet away.
You gotta have it, Malone knows, or this job kills you, physically or psychologically. Or both.
I realize that up to this point, I’ve mentioned zero about the plot. Winslow makes it difficult to review because his reveals are so good. Suffice it to say, we know Denny is dirty from Chapter One and is practically beyond redemption. Winslow takes him even lower—to depths of betrayal we never expect—before dragging him out of hell by the scruff like an avenging angel on that long and hard way that leads to the light. Denny is far beyond the light, but he fights and connives and tricks his way to a purgatory he may never escape—and on the way, he tears down one corrupt ring of hell.
Trust me, you’ll thank me for my vagueness when you get to read it yourself. If The Power of the Dog showed us how ambition and frustration lead men to break rules they set for themselves, The Force begins with an already corrupted soul in a system that needs him and shows us every blueprint used in its making.
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Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”
Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”