By John Wilkens
June 14, 2015
Don Winslow — Hayne Palmour IV / U-T
Ten years ago, crime novelist Don Winslow wrote a searing, violent book about the Mexican-American drug wars called “The Power of the Dog” that brought him critical acclaim and a question he avoided for as long as he could:
When are you doing a sequel?
Never. That was his answer. “Dog” was an emotionally wrenching five-year project, 30 years of bloody history steeped in 560 pages of furious energy. He immersed himself in the details of brutal killings and horrific torture, got inside the heads and hearts of DEA agents and drug lords, hit men and hookers.
Writing from the comfort of his home near Julian, he was far from the actual mayhem, but through his research he saw things he didn’t want to see, learned things he didn’t want to know. And when he’d told the story he wanted to tell, he was done.
Done with the vicious cartels, done with the jaded cops trying to stop them, done with America’s appetite for drugs and the harm its insatiability causes in other places.
“Done with the whole subject,” he said.
The sequel comes out June 23.
In the 10 years since Winslow wrote “Dog,” the drug wars have only gotten worse. More guns, more death, more horror, and more numbed indifference on the U.S. side of the border, a shrugging of the shoulders about “Mexico’s drug problem.”
Which, Winslow will tell you, is really America’s drug problem.
So he felt he had some unfinished business, and “The Cartel” is it. At 640 pages, it’s another monster of a novel – big in story, big in ambition. Based on real events, it’s unavoidably violent but not voyeuristic. There is a deep understanding of the bonds and betrayals inherent to the drug trade, considerable musing about the difference between vengeance and justice, and a recognition that even in the face of soul-sapping depravity, there can be nobility and courage.
The book has drawn a lot of early attention, with major newspapers (New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald) and magazines (Esquire, Entertainment Weekly) putting it on their “must read” lists for the summer.
And while it’s common to see an A-list writer offer a favorable blurb for a colleague, “The Cartel” has a Murderer’s Row of crime-novelists weighing in: James Ellroy, Harlan Coben, Lee Child, Michael Connelly.
“This,” according to Ellroy, “is the ‘War and Peace’ of dope war books. Tense, brutal, wildly atmospheric, stunningly plotted, deeply etched. It’s got the jazz dog feel of a shot of pure meth.”
Winslow, 61, is the author of 18 previous books and the owner of a resume interesting for its diversity of life experiences.
Born in New York, the son of a sailor and a librarian, he grew up in Rhode Island and did some child acting. He got a college degree in African studies in Nebraska (he also has a master’s in military history) and worked as a safari guide in Kenya. He’s herded cattle, managed a movie theater, taught Shakespeare at Oxford and been a private detective on both coasts.
His first novel, “A Cool Breeze on the Underground,” was published in 1991, and he settled into a familiar pattern for authors of his genre: Writing a series featuring the same detective. Five books into it, he grew bored, felt as if he was repeating himself.
“The Death and Life of Bobby Z” (1997) was his breakthrough book, smart and funny and fast-paced. Winslow penned its short chapters while riding the train back and forth between Dana Point, his home at the time, and L.A., where he was working on a PI case.
That novel was so well-received Winslow got a long-term book contract and a movie deal. He and his wife of 30 years, Jean, bought a place near Julian and moved there with their son, Thomas.
When “Power of the Dog” came out in 2005, it raised his profile here and abroad, with several critics likening it to “The Godfather” and calling it a masterpiece. Five years later, Winslow made an even bigger splash with “Savages.”
Feeling ornery about the way crime fiction was being compartmentalized – police procedural, thriller, mystery – he decided to flout the rules, starting with the opening chapter, which was just two words: “(Blank) you.”
Winslow said he knew readers would either toss the book aside or be drawn immediately into his story about two pot-growing friends in Laguna Beach, told in a skittering prose that was a combination of languages and inflections, fragments of thought, and explosive urgency.
The New York Times lauded what it called the Winslow Effect, the author’s ability to “fuse the grave and the playful, the body blow and the joke, the nightmare and the dream.” Oliver Stone turned the book into a movie.
Always at work on new projects – not just books but screenplays, short stories, commentaries, TV scripts – Winslow found himself getting pulled back into following the drug wars. He kept a chronology, based on media accounts and law-enforcement sources, of killings, narcotics arrests and turf battles between drug lords.
The chronology eventually grew to more than 150 single-spaced typewritten pages. In those entries, Winslow said, he began to see patterns, and in those patterns a story he could no longer put off telling.
How much is too much?
Decapitations with chain saws. Mass rapes followed by mass murders followed by mass burials. Bodies put in metal drums and set on fire, bodies hung from bridges, bodies dismembered and then rearranged for public display. And much of it recorded and distributed via the Internet for intimidation and recruiting purposes.
“When I was doing ‘Power of the Dog,’ I thought I had seen the ultimate in violence,” Winslow said. “Tragically, I was wrong.”
The historian in him wanted to bear witness to as many of the killings as possible – his editor sometimes teased him that he was writing a “docu-novel” – but how much horror is too much?
“You either sanitize it or you do it as realistically as you can,” Winslow said. “I chose the latter because I wanted the reader to understand the real human consequences of what we do up here.”
By “what we do up here” he means the billions of dollars Americans spend every year to buy drugs that are transported through Mexico. He means the billions that government agencies spend trying to halt that flow. He means the guns that are bought in the U.S. and wind up south of the border.
“People in America don’t understand what goes on down there,” he said. “And what Americans don’t understand in particular is our role in it. It’s not the Mexican drug problem; it’s the American drug problem. We’re the buyers, we’re the market, so for all the violent headlines that we read about across the border, what we need to understand is we fund it.”
“The Cartel” continues the deadly dance of DEA agent Art Keller and his nemesis, the powerful drug baron Adán Barrera, but it’s filled with at least a dozen key characters. The tale, which spans a decade, gets told through these shifting narrators.
The short chapters that have become a Winslow trademark are gone this time, inappropriate, he said, for a book this big and this serious. (There is some of his familiar snark, though, most of it from a character called Crazy Eddie.)
Winslow dedicated the book to journalists who were murdered or “disappeared” during the period covered in the novel. “These are people who were trying to tell the truth of what was happening,” he said, “and they were killed for it.”
He said he found their dedication and sacrifice inspiring, a bright light during the dark days of writing a novel that was “hard and depressing and infuriating.”
The dedication lists the names one by one, more than 130 of them, filling one page and almost half of another, and ending with this, a chilling reminder of why Winslow decided finally to write the book:
“There were others.”
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