And so here we are, The Border, the third and final instalment of The Cartel trilogy. It’s a 700 page + conclusion to the story began back in 2007 in Power of the Dog, continued in 2016’s The Cartel and now, a mere three years on, brought to a close. If the first two books were as much the story of Art Keller (tarnished CIA man) and Adan Barrera (drugs kingpin) as they were a secret history of the war on drugs, then the final book is (without giving away too many spoilers): what Art did next. The interesting thing about The Border, which you should know from the outset, is that whilst Winslow may have viewed these books as a trilogy from the beginning, there is no way he could have conceived of the action of The Border all those years ago. We’ll get to why in a moment.
What has happened over the course of these three books is: the situation has got more complicated. It may be, were Keller real, he would look back on the time covered in Power of the Dog with fondness, when bad guys had about them at least a sense of decency or at least a code (one is reminded of Stewart Lee’s tongue in cheek routine about the IRA being gentlemen bombers because they sometimes let the authorities know in advance of a bomb). The Cartel trilogy takes you from a world in which the American government fought a powerful foe, via a time in which rivalries grew amongst those powerful foes (the Zetas in The Cartel) to a time in which all bets are off, and internecine, inter-gang warfare is the order of the day. With – sorry, spoiler – Adan Barrera out of the way, there is jockeying for position – with old dogs (Tito), young pups (Ivan, Mini-Ric) and close allies (Elena, Nunez) drawing up temporary allegiances that aren’t worth the paper they are written on and malignant spiders (Rafael Caro) pulling strings from the centre of a web and other lone wolves (Ruiz, Cullen) appearing from previous books with powerful roles still to play. All of which may make you think – “I haven’t read the previous books, this isn’t the place to start” (which we think is correct) or “I have read the previous books and this sounds thrilling” (correct). If you’ve read the previous two books and you worry that you can’t quite remember all of the ins and outs, don’t worry – Winslow gives you enough to recall what you need to recall.
It’s a vast and storied canvass taking in Guatemalan street kids riding la bestia all the way to the States and entering the system as illegal immigrants, decent law abiding cops forced undercover to understand how drugs are getting out to the streets of New York, and – we did say there was no way Winslow could have written this a decade or more ago – DEA agents under Keller investigating a President with close ties to the Cartel, using drug money to finance high end property deals. President Dennison is a Trump manqué. Of course. And Dennison’s tweets – which pepper The Border – may remind you of a certain leader of the free world too. (Outside of the world of the book, Winslow is engaged in a furiously one sided war of words with Trump, challenging him to a debate on the wall, sharing stats all across Twitter outlining why the wall is just about the dumbest thing to have come out of his mouth – and we all know it has a lot of competition.) Now, we don’t know if Winslow is taking all of the Russia scandal and reinterpreting it via his particular lens or whether there is more to the story than meets the eye (in other words, does Winslow know things we don’t?) – but you’ll more than likely read The Border and find yourself admitting that it wouldn’t surprise you in the least if the likes of Jared Kushner had meetings with high powered representatives of the Cartels because… money goes to money and corruption gravitates to corruption right?
It really is a tremendous read. If you compare it to its nearest and closest rival, James Ellroy’s Underground USA trilogy (which, to my mind, started out with its best book, American Tabloid, and then got progressively muddier via The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A-Rover), Winslow trumps Ellroy. This trilogy is a game-changer for Winslow. With The Border he becomes, for me, the crime DeLillo. A few days ago, Don Winslow tweeted, “It seems like a good time to tell you that The Border is not only the last book in my Cartel trilogy, but also the last book I will ever write about the war on drugs. In over 20 years of writing across three books and 2000 pages, I’ve said everything I have to say on this subject.” So it looks like this is it. And if that’s the case – if we don’t hear from Art and Marisol, or Tito and Ivan and all of those guys again – he’s gone out on an absolute high. And the hope would surely be he now brings his eye to bear upon a single book that is his Underworld.
Any Cop?: The Border is one of those books you want to list crazy adjectives alongside (rip-snorting etc) – which will give you a sense of what a page-turner this is – but will also do the book a disservice because this is a smart novel, a well-written novel, more than just a thrill-ride, it’s busy engaging with the demented world in which we all find ourselves. This is Winslow at the absolute top of his game.