Book Review : Don Winslow - The Force (2017)
Nothing gets me going like rotten cops going at one another. The collapse of society implied by unruly policeman giving in to personal ambition and greed captivates me. It also reminds me we're always one step away from complete fucking chaos. But no harm reading a novel about it, right? That is why I bought Don Winslow's latest novel The Force, a couple weeks ago. The author behind contemporary classics like Power of the Dog and Savages is renowned for his maniacal devotion to research and his labyrinthine novels. If anyone could pull off the ultimate corrupt cop novel, it's him. So, how was it?
Well, hear me out...
The Force is the story of Denny Malone, a decorated NYPD police officer. Malone didn't exactly got there by being a choir boy. He planted evidence on criminals when needed, sided with criminal gangs against other and took several kickbacks along the way. Being a cop is such a thankless job, so why not? Right? This is how Malone and his task force (hence the title of the novel) slowly slip down the path of corruption. When confronted with the possibility of stealing a large drug shipment from a dead dealer, they all embrace the opportunity of casing-in on retirement money. What you covet the most eventually makes you a target, though. Malone and the task force are sitting on a huge albatross waiting for them to fuck up.
Don Winslow is such an unconventional writer. He is primarily interested in topics and his novels are shaped by his research. I don't believe Denny Malone existed before he finished researching for The Force any more than Art Keller or Adan Barrera existed before he finished researching DEA and Mexican cartels for The Power of the Dog. So, topics takes precedence over character which makes them compelling and hypercompetent, yet somewhat difficult to empathize with. Denny Malone's problems are so specific to his situation, it's tough to feel any sense of connection to him. Perhaps my favorite scene in that regard is where he loses his shit at his child's birthday and destroys a piñata because he can't stand acting normal after seeing a horrific crime scene earlier that day. It's a great scene, but it's only one scene.
So, what is there to like about Denny Malone? The Force is a lengthy and complex novel, but he is at the center of everything. This is where Don Winslow's maniacal amount of research comes into play. His novel theoretically answers the question: what would a corrupt, but successful NYPD officer's life look like? As you might've expected, there's a great deal of nuance and circumstances that lead him down the path of corruption. And perhaps most important: frustration. Cops are given an almost unlimited amount of power in their role of keepers of social order, yet are required to stay righteous even when no one is looking. Nobody cares about the psychological trauma they're experiencing daily because it's "the life they chose", but everybody expects them not to take advantage of their situation. Don Winslow provides a nuanced perspective on police corruption through The Force, which is a feat in itself.
I've tore through The Force in two ravenous days of reading. It's perhaps not Don Winslow's best novel, but it's up there with the best ones. It impressively traces a coherent path from law enforcement to drug dealing without portraying any inherently evil or greedy characters. The cops of Don Winslow's The Force are stand up guys doing a thankless job who start gradually start slipping the day they begin accepting kickbacks. I enjoy my rotten cops a little more remorseless and theatrical than that, but the characters of The Force were fantastically Winslowesque, so I wasn't disappointed or anything. I highly recommend this book to whoever liked David Simon's seminal television show The Wire. It's written with the same tone, nuance and with a similar lack of judgement.