The Cartel novelist has no fear of death threats. He’s had many lives already. What scares him is ceasing to be shocked at what humans do to each other.
June 15, 2017
Everyone in this small mountain town in Southern California knows Don Winslow — unless you show up asking about him. Then you’re more likely to find blank stares, shrugged shoulders, shaking heads. Don who? Never heard of him.
The novelist, whose new book The Force comes out next week, has lived here for decades, but has lately asked to keep the exact location out of the press. His fiction is so densely layered with fact that he has attracted a few death threats from criminals, thugs, and lowlifes who resent their stories turning up within his.
We’re sitting in a small farming warehouse that has been converted into local shops, having lunch at Winslow’s favorite taco place, and he knows everyone by name — even the little kids running around. So he’s not hiding, but that doesn’t mean he’s easy to find.
“You don’t see armed guards surrounding me,” says Winslow, a lean 60-something with steely eyes and a quick, disarming smile. “But at the same time, if you came in here and asked any of these people where I lived, they wouldn’t tell you.”
A few menacing calls started rolling in from Mexican drug traffickers who didn’t like his depiction of their world in his 2015 best-seller The Cartel, but even more threats followed his August 2016 non-fiction article in Esquire: “El Chapo and the Secret History of the Heroin Crisis,” which detailed how legalized marijuana led those in the narcotics business to push an even deadlier product on their consumers.
“One time, my wife and kid were out of town, and I got a ‘We’re-going-to-come-f—king-kill-you’ call, and I heard myself say, ‘Well, come in an ambulance, because that’s how you’re leaving,’” Winslow says, with a disbelieving laugh.
Then the smile fades and he adds matter-of-factly: “F–k you, you’re going to come and kill me. I’m a small, old guy, but I can take care of myself.”
The Force shifts focus from the drug battlefields of Mexico and the American southwest to the concrete and steel canyons of New York City, specifically the neighborhoods of Manhattan North, where a dangerously charismatic cop named Denny Malone leads a special NYPD unit that has begun bending the law to brutalize bad guys — which works pretty well until they lose sight of where the breaking point is.
It’s one of the most daring and explosive books of summer, grabbing readers by the front of the shirt and dragging them into a world where honor and wrongdoing are mismatched partners. It’s written in the third person, but this is no impassive narrator; it’s a sardonic, streetwise voice — like a pissed off conscience, telling a cautionary tale. On the cover, Stephen King supplies the vouch: “The Force is mesmerizing, a triumph. Think The Godfather, only with cops. It’s that good.”
The book opens with a flash-forward: Detective Malone behind bars. The mystery isn’t how he got there — it’s which of his myriad felonies finally caught up with him? And what line will he cross to get out? He’s an anti-hero for sure, but that “hero cop” title isn’t necessarily wrong.
He has a history of valor and does what he does to protect people who manage to live inside the law, making The Force a tragedy about going wrong while trying to do right. Like Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men, maybe we need him on that wall.
As he did with The Cartel, Winslow takes a journalistic approach to this novel, filling it with true-life stories from people who actually do that job, including tales that might make trouble for them if they ever came to light.
“These guys are not naïve. I use the line, ‘Look, I’m here to get it right, and I’m here to listen. So talk to me,’” Winslow says. “I think, on some level, most people want to tell their stories. Cops feel very misunderstood. Increasingly so, and increasingly unappreciated.”
We’re in Winslow’s office now — an old gas station at the top of a gravel road, which he has converted into a writing den. The front window looks out at one of the main thoroughfares through town, but out back it’s nothing but horse meadows. Peaceful in the extreme.
Off to the side of his desk, there’s a coffee machine, which supplies Winslow’s only drug of choice — caffeine — and the walls are adorned with surfing photos. More tranquil surroundings. That helps. From dawn until late afternoon, he sits at his computer, researching the evil that men do (and it is mostly men, except for when it’s kids pulling the trigger) and turning those hard truths into fiction.
“Don does several things better than most,” says Gone Baby Gone and Since We Fell author Dennis Lehane, Winslow’s brother in the literary thriller genre. “He connects dots in terms of the history of our war on drugs better than anyone. He also humanizes characters who, in a lesser author’s hands, would be cardboard monsters. His authorial voice is very sly and bemused. It’s crystal clear in the early books like The Death and Life of Bobby Z, but it’s just as present in the darker, more ‘serious’ work like Power of the Dog and The Cartel.”
The Force attempts to link the good along with the bad. Police trying to do the right thing find it isn’t enough. And some of them break.
“People don’t see these connections,” Winslow says. “When you stop and cut community police funds and then you watch violence go up. When you slash social services and then you watch violence go up. And you can track it virtually with the dates. Well, gee, you know, maybe we should look at this.”
One subplot in The Force explores how police lives are threatened by the proliferation of guns — not just Saturday Night Specials anymore, but military-grade assault weapons. (The book is dedicated to three pages of law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty during the time Winslow wrote it.) States and cities plagued by this gun epidemic can’t do much to stop it because black-market firepower flows out of the south via a network of traffickers.
“Yeah, the Iron Pipeline,” Winslow says, scowling as talk turns to the Department of Justice and half-hearted (or dishonest) attempts to fix the problem. “They’re going send the Feds in and they’re going do this and that in Chicago. They don’t care where the guns come from, you see. The guns come from Alabama and Virginia and Texas.”
He leans back in his chair, coiled for a fight. “It’s so infuriating. And when you talk to cops, that’s their huge concern: Guns. I had a cop call me the other day. I can’t tell you from where. It’s a high ranking cop in a big city. But he just said ‘Man, I’m so sick and tired of having to go out to these scenes and see people with their sneakers up. It’s just constant.’”
Then there’s the way the job of crime fighting warps even well-meaning souls. It leads to racism, hostility, authoritarianism and a general cops-against-the-world mentality that can eat away at the heart beneath a badge.
“It’s a mortal danger of that kind of work. You want to protect people and you know that most of the people are good people and yet you’re always dealing with the sh-t,” Winslow says. “And cops can start hating the general public, you know, on one level or another. I was talking to a guy, and he was saying, ‘I spend my whole day with animals.’”
Winslow adds a line straight from the mouth of a character in The Force: “Nobody ever calls you when things are good.”
His novel may be the story of a cop gone wrong, but that’s a contrast to the police Winslow admires: those who resist such pressures and continue to walk the line. He started writing his drug trafficking books, The Cartel and its predecessor Power of the Dog (published in 2005) because of an age-old question: “How does this happen? How can people do this sort of thing?”
A similar question inspired The Force. What makes a good person stay good? And what makes another fall into the abyss?
“I call it The Macbeth Syndrome,” Winslow says. “You know, you meet Macbeth and he’s this nice loyal guy. And then he kills the King. And then he kills his best friend. And then he kills innocent children and… step by step.”
Simple questions don’t always have easy answers. Sometimes conscience overrules the law. But still, it’s a step that leads to another step. Denny Malone thinks he has this under control. He’s certain he knows where his lines are. And he’s totally wrong.
“There is the corruption of taking money or taking bribes or whatever. That’s one thing,” Winslow says. “But there’s another kind of corruption that is the shortcut. ‘I wanna put that bad guy away, but I can’t do it playing by the rules.’ Then the little shortcuts become big shortcuts. So you have [police] — I’ve talked to them — that really do start out to do good. And they are highly motivated. And they see a lot of filthy sh-t and they see a lot of sorrow, and they see a lot of pain, and they see who’s causing it.”
So maybe instead of getting a warrant, an officer claims to hear a scream from inside the house. The next thing they know, they’re lying in court about that. Or they question the abused wife who has just blown her husband’s brains out in a way meant to support a self-defense plea. Or maybe in the search for a runaway, it becomes clear that kid wouldn’t be better off at home, and so it becomes a “search-and-avoid” mission.
Other times, it might take doing something slightly wrong to put someone far worse behind bars, literally for good. “I gotta tell you, I understand it,” Winslow says. “I’ve worked for prosecutors. I’ve done civil cases. I spent an awful two years doing child sexual abuse cases. There are some temptations there.”
This brings up just one of Winslow’s many past lives: private investigator. That job involved helping attorneys probe arson cases, insurance fraud, and civil litigation relating to murders and other criminal cases.
Born on Staten Island, he grew up in Rhode Island and one of his early writing gigs was penning a burlesque stage show in his home state. When he got older and moved to New York, he worked for a security company as “bait,” luring would-be muggers into Time Square sting operations.
After getting his masters degree in military history , he went to work in the mid-80s as a State Department analyst in Africa. “I was in South Africa. What was then Rhodesia. Angola. Mozambique. Then I left all that and became a safari guide in a relatively peaceful Kenya,” he says.
He’s still an avid bird watcher. In the field behind his house, he points out a pair of rare white-tailed kites — raptors who swirl their black-tipped wings to hover over fields like mini-helicopters, searching for prey. Winslow is a little chagrined by his hobby. At a writer’s conference, he says was reluctant to tell his hard-boiled fellow scribes that the reason he disappeared for a while was to scan for shore birds. (We joke that he should just use the excuse: “Cartel business. You don’t want to know.”)
In the late-‘80s, Winslow left Africa and came back to the states to work as a P.I., which he did for years while dabbling in writing. Eventually, the darkness of his day-job overtook him.
“Not to turn this into a confessional or, you know, The Dr. Phil Show or something, but I knew I had to get out of the investigative business one day when I was on a homicide case,” Winslow says.
“I was looking at a file: a woman who’s husband had burned her to death. Strangled her and then lit her on fire. And our job was to show that he had killed her before the fire broke out. So, I’m sitting there looking at the photos. A busy day. Didn’t have much time to go out for lunch. So, I’m looking at the photos of this half burned woman with one hand and eating a ham sandwich with the other and realized I felt absolutely nothing.”
He pauses, staring. “I mean nothing,” he says finally. “All I was doing was getting technical information. I was looking at the blistering. I was looking at the way her hands were.” His fingers make claws. “I was taking notes and checking those against other peoples’ reports and opinions to get ready for trial. And it meant nothing to me.”
In other words, he was horrified not to be horrified. Writing seemed like a good way to escape, while still putting his expertise as an investigator and researcher to good use.
Later, a walk around the home he shares with his wife, Jean, reveals other surprises. The author is also an alto saxophone player, and his son, now grown, worked in logistics for President Obama. There’s a framed picture of 44 and his boy in the living room.
If Winslow didn’t really exist, you’d swear Elmore Leonard made him up.
Now he’s adding film work to his resume. He co-wrote, with longtime collaborator Shane Salerno, the adaptation of his novel Savages for Oliver Stone’s 2014 film, and now Ridley Scott is developing an adaptation of The Cartel and producing a movie version of The Force, which Logan and Cop Land filmmaker James Mangold plans to direct.
“In an age of gimmick novels, where each hit book tries to out twist the previous, Don is a classicist,” Mangold tells EW. The filmmaker said he was drawn to adapt the book because “it is utterly contemporary but reminds me of great cop books of the ‘70’s, a character piece with a thumping pulse, acutely observed, and sexy. I think the fractured world of Don’s dark hero, Denny Malone, is a reflection of the times and the fractured morality of modern big-city policing.”
The filmmaker describes the author this way: “Don is a cat. A cool cat. Poised, dapper, clear eyed, listening, always listening, very still, wheels turning, tail swinging to some jazz tune.”
And Lehane agrees, saying Winslow’s personality is the opposite of what most people would expect from a guy whose art focuses so much on the grim side of human nature. “[He’s] very So Cal sunny, laid back, not the kind of guy you’d suspect could come up with some of the scenes in Power of the Dog or Savages,” Lehane says. “But then people are usually surprised when they meet me and discover I tell jokes and have a generally optimistic outlook. Creating art isn’t about what’s in the personality, it’s about what’s in the person.”
Maybe that’s why those death threats don’t bother him. He says he looks twice at unfamiliar cars parked for too long on the dirt road leading to his home, but otherwise he’s determined not to be cowed. His whole career as a writer and investigator is about staring down the worst and not blinking.
“I think they’re pranks. I think they’re some idiot,” he says of the “we’re-going-to-come-f—king-kill-you” calls. Also, he points out he has gotten unexpectedly positive messages from the people he writes about, too. Like anyone, they want their story to be told. Some are simply better at acknowledging the truth than others.
“I get calls from cartel people who tell me, ‘Yeah, man you got this right. You nailed it,’” Winslow says with a laugh. “So I get fan calls from drug traffickers! But I also get hate mail and the occasional threat.”
He shrugs. It comes with the territory.