In addition to being the most exciting, suspenseful, Machiavellian book I have read this year, The Force, Don Winslow's nineteenth novel, could serve as the set text for an entire course on ethics. In its pages notions of right and wrong, justice and law, integrity and duplicity, professional duty and personal obligation are dissected, extrapolated, and rearranged in every sort of macabre permutation.
Blue-eyed, six-foot-two, thirty-eight-year-old Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is the Staten Island–born hero-cop son of a hero-cop father and the leader of New York's elite Manhattan North Special Task Force. Tough, smart, and committed, the four-man "pack of alphas" are "the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent" of the city's 38,000-member police force. They are were "Da Force," blowing "through the city like a cold, harsh, fast, and violent wind, scouring the streets and alleys, the playgrounds, parks, and projects, scraping away the trash and the filth, a predatory storm blowing away the predators." All crime is their province, but drugs and guns are their special targets and it is drugs and guns that have landed Malone where we first meet him: behind bars, a calamity that has taken eighteen years to develop and almost 500 pages to explore.
Manhattan North Special Task Force is made up of Malone, in whose voice filtered through a behind-the-eyeballs third person the story is told; Phil Russo, his best pal from Staten Island; and the trilby-wearing, cigar-chomping Bill Montague, a.k.a. Big Monty. They have recently lost a fourth member, "Billy O," killed during a raid, and he has been replaced by Dave Levin, a man who has a lot to learn (and accept) about "the Job," as they call it. The veterans Malone, Russo, and Monty are honorable men by their own lights and have been frustrated by their inability to nail the big boys in the drug-and-gun trade, the men who preserve their territory through beatings, mutilations, and murders. It is only a matter of Realpolitik, then, to cook up phony reasons for entering apartments without warrants, plant guns on people they know to be criminals, or "testilie" in court in order to put the bad guys away.
The men are honorable, too, as they maintain with increasing elasticity, in accepting the gratitude of the community, gravitating from taking small freebies (coffee and donuts) to larger ones (meals and tickets) to accepting fatter and fatter envelopes of cash for various missions, on to pocketing thousands of dollars secured during drug raids. Is this wrong? Malone, finally confronting a big mess of his own making, examines his once-flexible conscience: "Told yourself it was different because you were robbing drug dealers instead of banks." Even the ultimate: absconding with several million dollars' worth of cocaine and selling it off to be peddled on the streets the Task Force is supposed to police, fits – barely into the code. After all, the money will be used for their children's college and for the survivors of their dead comrade. They're "doing the right thing."
The one unforgivable breach of the code is ratting on another cop, and the most grievous version of this is to rat on your partners. It is a thing of horrifying beauty to see how Winslow sets up a nightmarish sequence of traps and snares to place Malone in a situation that would seem to demand it. After years of fearing NYPD's investigative Internal Affairs Bureau, Malone gets nabbed by the feds, and pretty soon he's playing a fast-paced, down-and-dirty game of hardball with New York City's power brokers, their "faces full of wealth, grit, cynicism, greed and energy."
That this fine novel will be a movie is not in doubt. It is filled with exhilarating details of weaponry, court maneuvers, and New York's lowlife, and is punctuated by blood-rousing action scenes. It is also leavened along the way with jokes and nicely cynical wisecracks. ("When the pope came to NYC, Malone wanted to arrest him.")
But above all, Winslow brings the same mastery of the anatomy of corruption to this book that he brought to the Mexican drug trade and our ruinous "war on drugs" in The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, his brilliant duo of narco-thrillers. Laying bare the intertangled ganglia of criminal enterprise, law enforcement, the justice system, and politics, he displays a deep and unsavory knowledge of how things work in NYC, from the distribution of street territory among various ethnic criminal gangs to the running of the "Iron Pipeline," whereby guns from southern states with negligible gun laws make their way up Interstate 95 into the arsenals of northern crime bosses and onto the streets. Finally and, if I may say so, gloriously he illustrates the sanitized involvement of real estate moguls, judicial officials, and the mayor's office in the whole dirty business. And, even if the novel's end, a melodramatic Götterdämmerung, is not entirely believable, it is perfectly satisfying.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers