Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: "The Force" by Don Winslow

I have been a fan of Don Winslow's for more than 20 years, starting when I found his series featuring Neal Carey, one of the more unlikely private investigators I had seen back then. (This was a time when there wasn't such a glut of books featuring unlikely PIs.) Through the years I've read pretty much everything he has written, and I kept hoping there would be a book that would finally catapult him to the level of fame his talent so deserves.

Simply put, his latest book, The Force, is nothing short of a masterpiece, and it appears to be the book which might finally make Winslow a household name. While the story of corruption in the ranks of the NYPD may be a familiar one, in Winslow's hands, it is raw and gripping, one of those books you can't stop reading, and it feels incredibly current. It is definitely one which will make one hell of a movie. (And it already has been optioned, so it will be one to watch!)

The Manhattan North Special Task Force, otherwise known as "Da Force" (as if said with a New York accent), is the NYPD's most elite unit. Created to crack down on the influx of violence, gangs, guns, and drugs infiltrating the city, particularly in the Harlem area, the detectives who serve on Da Force are among the toughest, smartest, most bad-ass cops the city has to offer. At the helm of this unit is Detective Sergeant Denny Malone, who relishes his power and all he can accomplish with it. And boy, does he love his job.

"All Da Force detectives are kings, but Malone—with no disrespect intended to our Lord and Savior—is the King of Kings. Manhattan North is the Kingdom of Malone. Like with any king, his subjects love him and fear him, revere him and loathe him, praise him and revile him. He has his loyalists and rivals, his sycophants and critics, his jesters and advisers, but he has no real friends. Except his partners."

Malone and his partners have given every inch of themselves to the city. They've put themselves at serious risk of injury and death (and have the scars to show for it), and have witnessed the utter horrors that people inflict on one another, whether due to the influence of drugs and alcohol, for revenge or retribution, if they perceive someone is threatening their business interests, or simply out of boredom or cruelty. It's a job that wears you down, but Malone and his partners and his fellow officers love it anyway.

"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."

The thing is, police work is a lot about "what have you done for me lately," so no matter what heroic deeds Da Force does, there's always pressure from higher up to keep crime stats down, keep guns and drugs away, keep people from being murdered. Ultimately, to succeed, you can't be 100 percent idealistic, nor can you be 100 percent innocent. And through their years in the NYPD, Malone and his partners haven't done everything by the book. There may have been times when evidence or weapons were planted, when money changed hands to make things go away, where lawful procedures were skirted or avoided. If the end result is what is desired, what's the problem?

When Da Force makes the biggest heroin bust in the city, they're hailed as hero cops. Yet Malone and his partners actually steal some of the drugs and some of the money before turning everything else in. They're entitled. But this sends them down their slipperiest slope yet, and when Malone catches the eye of the feds for a fairly routine (but still illegal) thing, he finds himself caught in a trap, and has to decide whether to save himself or betray his fellow officers, something he vowed he'd never do.

The Force is magnificently told—it's a big novel with a big vision and a fairly large cast of characters, yet the cops at its center fully grab your attention. Malone is far from perfect and he'll admit that to anyone. He knows that somewhere along the line he and his comrades stepped out of line, but once you get used to the privilege and the perks and the money and the prestige, can you go back and admit your mistakes? This is a man so in love with the job and what they can achieve, he can't think of doing anything else in the world.

Elements of the plot are definitely familiar, but woven together with Winslow's amazing storytelling, it is completely riveting, and I read nearly the entire book on a cross-country flight. Perhaps because of all the references to Serpico I kept seeing a young Al Pacino as Malone, but the characters and the images are so vivid, I watched the book play out in my head as I was reading it. I cannot wait to see this adapted into a movie, because in addition to the violence and bravado and corruption there are moments of true tenderness and emotion and vulnerability.

As you might expect, there is a lot of violence in this book, and in a book which takes place in a culture greatly affected by racism, there is strong language and racial and cultural epithets used throughout. None of it felt gratuitous to me, but I know some may find that triggering or troublesome.

Ever since I learned Winslow would be writing this book, I couldn't wait to read it. Now that I have, I am so excited about the response it has received from critics and readers across the country. He is definitely a writer worth reading, and whether you start with this book or one of his others, you're sure to find an excellent, exceptionally written story.

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