“Over the top” – The Force by Don Winslow

We came to Don Winslow late, 15 novels in, if truth be told. We snapped up The Power of the Dog last year (published in 2009) and then read its sequel, The Cartel, all in the matter of one week. Since then we’ve also managed to read another noteworthy Winslow, The Winter of Frankie Machine. If you like sturdy authentic crime dramas, we’d recommend each of these books. Winslow’s latest, The Force, comes feted, as you’d expect by a lot of big crime names (Lee Child, Michael Connelly, James Ellroy) – the most forceful cover quote coming from Stephen King (himself a recent convert to crime dramas with his Bill Hodges trilogy) that proclaims this book, “Think The Godfather, only with cops. It’s that good.” Sad, sad, sad to say – we don’t think it’s as good as The Godfather. Quite the opposite.

This is principally the story of Detective Sergeant Denny Malone – and one thing you should know from the outset is that this book could be read with a comically overplayed Brooklyn accent and that would give you a really good idea of what to expect. Malone and his compadres, Russo and Billy O, are cops in the Manhattan North Special Task Force (or Da Force, as they like to think of themselves, with Denny as the King, despite the presence of a boss and various higher ups that he has to keep on side). We meet them as they bust a major drugs boss – incurring a fatality in the unit but also, you know, killing lots of bad guys, including the drugs boss himself (in what can only be described as cold blood), before, you know, half-inching a big pile of drugs for themselves to sell on at a later date.

Ah, you think by about 20 pages in, this is a story of a cop gone bad, a cop who has rationalised the small corners that are cut for a period of years until he can get to the point where taking drugs and selling them on can be justified by saying it might as well go to him as anyone else. Several times through the book, as Malone slips inexorably down, becoming every bit the kind of person he would otherwise despise, he justifies his actions by lashing out, only very rarely turning his keen analytical eyes on himself. He abandoned his family to shack up with a drug addicted young beauty (and there are times when even he can see the contradictions involved in selling drugs and also trying to protect his lover from drugs by threatening street pushers) – but Malone is just about as unsympathetic as a person can get.

Now don’t mistake us. We know that there is a prevailing critical current among a great many readers that characters need to be likeable – but we don’t feel that way. We want our characters to be true and to be complicated. And undoubtedly Winslow is attempting to show the world (and quite possibly the bleeding heart liberals) just how impossible the average police job is, predicated on impossible contradictions. You can’t be good. Not to get the job done. You’ve got to rub shoulders with scumbags and, what’s more, evaluate which scumbag warrants the most attention. All of the bribes and the kickbacks, all of the nods and the winks and the unspoken agreements that loiter phantomlike between every handshake and lunchdate – we buy it all.

It’s just… the hoops that Winslow has his characters (and particularly Malone) jump through reach the point where you just think, as a serious reader, I just don’t buy it any more. Malone is a pretty bad guy. He has few redeeming characteristics. By the time you get to the last forty or fifty pages, he’s done things that he long swore he would never do, he’s lost his job and on his way to prison (the novel starts with him en route to prison so this isn’t really a spoiler, you know he comes a cropper from the outset) – and then, Ghostbusters-like, he’s called back to save the city – and at the meeting where he’s asked to save the city, he lays into all of the top brass (and it’s basically every major player in New York) with what can only be described as The Force‘s Oscar speech. If you want an idea of just how over the top it gets, imagine Jack Nicholson looking up from the stand in A Few Good Men having just delivered his “You can’t handle the truth!” speech and saying, ‘hey guys… maybe tone it down a little…”

It stops feeling true is what we’re saying. The wheels come off. And it’s possible a lot of people will like that. For a lot of people this may feel like drama with a capital D. After all, Ridley Scott has snapped up the rights to make a movie. But not us. For us, it’s a cartoon that has been elegantly constructed by someone who really knows what they are talking about. The thrum of authentic research pulses throughout the book. But the book itself? Disappointing. Over the top. Unbelievable. Lacking. The kind of book that will have you rolling your eyes. A lot. Until they start to hurt.

Any Cop?: Coming after The Cartel, this puts a slight crimp in our burgeoning Winslow fandom.

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