Book Review : Don Winslow - The Cartel (2015)
American author Don Winslow writes novels like he still lived in the twentieth century. Long, ambitious and single-minded doorstop thrillers that are meant to be enjoyed as a primary source of entertainment. They’re uncompromising and in your face. His novel The Power of the Dog, while unashamedly Hollywoodian, went to great lengths to illustrate how big and complex a problem drug cartels are on a worldwide scale. Winslow wrote a sequel in 2015, prosaically called The Cartel, which was perhaps the only reason I’d have to read a 700 pages novel in this day and age.
And it’s as ferocious as it is straightforward.
The Cartel picks up not so long after the events of The Power of the Dog. Sinaloa cartel leader Adàn Barrera is rotting in an Californian prison and DEA agent Art Keller has retired in a Mexican monastery, where he became their official beekeeper. This precarious balance is blown into dust when Adàn’s handicapped daughter dies. It prompts him to give up a fellow cartel leader in order to be transferred to a Mexican prison, where he can resume his activities. Oh and he also puts a two million dollars bounty on Art’s head, who he deems responsible for his daughter’s death. Homicidal shenanigans ensue. Lots of them.
This novel is as direct a sequel as possible to The Power of the Dog. There are several new characters, but the issue is still the same. Adàn is doing terrible shit to consolidate his power over Mexican cartels and Art is trying to stop him while debating whether the only logical way to do so is a bullet to the head. It takes for Don Winslow maybe 80 pages to get Adàn out of prison, but afterwards you get a whopping 650 pages manhunt with Mexican journalists and small town city officials caught in the crossfire. It’s like a closer’s fastball, you know? It’s one trick, but it doesn’t stops being dangerous and impressive.
So, The Cartel’s most interesting addition is the segments about Mexican press. They played a critical role in exposing the violence of cartels and what they call pax narcotica, where peace is achieved through annihilation of the enemy. In 2019, whether you believe media are pulling stories out of their asses for clicks or not, it’s important to understand their role against tyrannical powers and The Cartel breaks it down better than any sophomoric 5,000 words Slate thinkpiece could. Truth and facts aren’t the same, but sometimes you just report the facts and let people make up their own truth.
That’s about it, really. The Cartel is not exactly complicated or nuanced. It’s a sprawling, in your face manhunt that ripples through the lives of millions of innocent people. That itself is complex, but it’s not morally complicated. None of the cartel members think of themselves as fighting the good fight. They are greedy, but self-aware businessmen hellbent on crushing competition. But you know what? It’s not over yet. “Nothing is ever over,” like True Detective’s Rust Cohle would say. There’s another 700 pages tome called The Border coming on February 26th, which I’m reading right now. I’ll drop a review close to that date, but in the meantime, get your geopolitical, narcotrafficking hyperviolence with The Cartel.