‘As good as Ellroy’s own American Tabloid’ – The Cartel by Don Winslow

tcdwAlready labelled ‘the War and Peace of dope-war books’ by none other than James Ellroy, Don Winslow’s 15th book is a direct sequel to his 2007 novel, The Power of the Dog, and continues that novel’s charting of the American war on drugs through the prism of two contrapuntal characters: Keller, a DEA agent, and Barrera, a drug lord.

“When you ask people, “What’s America’s longest war?” they usually answer “Vietnam” or amend that to “Afghanistan” but it’s neither.

America’s longest war is the war on drugs.”

Picking up pretty much where The Power of the Dog left off, The Cartel finds Keller keeping bees in a monastery, a $2m bounty placed on his head by Barrera, and Barrera in a prison in Mexico, living the high life, running the show and making plans for the future. It takes an elaborate jailbreak to bring Keller back to his DEA colleagues, Barrera going to ground with a former beauty queen in tow, a beauty queen who turns out to be just as shrewd, just as ruthless, as her new lover (Winslow is not a crime writer who deals exclusively in boy’s clubs). But the world that Keller and Barrera renew their struggle in is different from the world as it was in The Power of the Dog.

“The cartels have more influence than at any other time, have co-opted the major instruments of power, and threaten to become a shadow government. The war between them increases the violence to horrific levels. What we have been doing isn’t working.”

Barrera attempts to rebuild La Confederacion, in the company of trusted colleagues, disingenuously claiming he doesn’t want to be El Patron, but his rivals have other plans – and the ‘horrific levels’ of violence’ referred to above manifest themselves in what amounts to guerrilla war between warring factions of rival gangs, each faction cutting a swathe through innocent civilians, laying waste to cities until only ghost towns and shells remain. Parts of The Cartel recall nothing quite so much as ‘The Parts about the Crimes’ from Roberto Bolano’s 2666. Bodies pile up, mass graves abound. Winslow also introduces us to the small media community in Ciudad Juarez and uses their interactions to illustrate that there is a culture beyond that of the drug gangs but also to draw attention to the fact that in recent years journalists have become some of the main victims of the drug war. (These elements of the book also recall season 5 of The Wire.)

Eschewing the kind of staccato machine gunning you’d get in James Ellroy these days, Winslow is steady, as at home in explication as action, his characters living and breathing amidst sturdy as hell research (Winslow spent a great deal of time in Mexico throughout the writing of the book) – such that you are left with a novel that calls for its readers to invest their hearts in his characters at the same time as knowledge and reporting stimulates the old grey matter. It’s a substantial book, 600+ pages of weight and substance (Ellroy’s claim feels pretty close to the mark), and the kind of book you can wallow in – particularly if you read it, as I did, back to back with The Power of the Dog. The books taken together are easily as good as Ellroy’s own American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. What’s more, they leave the reader hungering for at the very least a third and final entry, closing up Winslow’s documenting of the war on drugs.

Any Cop?: The Power of the Dog and The Cartel have powerfully shoved Winslow on to my radar – and the fact that there are over a dozen books by him I’ve not read yet makes me very happy indeed!


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