Thursday, 16 November 2017


The Cartel, by Don Winsow

            I am still thanking my lucky stars for introducing me to Don Winslow’s latest novel, The Force (see review below), so checked out our library’s stocks of his books – only to find that of the sixteen he has written, The Force and The Cartel are the sole examples of this master’s work on the shelves.  Which is a great shame, for he is one of the truly great 21st century crime writers and should be represented accordingly in our library.
            Mr Winslow turns his sights in this story on the Mexican drug wars with the U.S.A., the conflict that neither country can win as long as there are producers and consumers.  Supply and demand.  But Cocaine is not the God – money is:  the top ‘Narcos’ don’t mess with their own product;  they are in the business to get rich, for wealth can buy power – and governments.  At the top of the Narco pecking order sits El Senor, Adan Barrera, the best and most ruthless ‘businessman’ of them all.  Elite and untouchable, he and his soldiers have absolute power over large parts of Mexico – including the Mexican equivalent of the White House;  in fact his empire is unassailable except for an irritation from his past (this book is a sequel to The Power of the Dog but stands well on its own;  still, I would have loved to read that first!), an American D.E.A. Agent who is committed to bring him to justice for his many and brutal crimes. 
            Art Keller is a lone wolf, an honourable man who has lost a lot in his life but still believes in ‘doing the right thing’, and the right thing this time is capturing Barrera by any means possible – even if Barrera should have an ‘accident’ as he is being brought in, well that’s O.K. too.  It will be payback for the thousands who have died, not just the drug users, but the righteous folk - police, journalists, innocent townspeople who protested against his power:  yep, an accident would be fine.
            ‘The Cartel’ teems with characters that delight and horrify the reader.  The violence is gut-churningly graphic – there is no escape for us as the gory, bloody war that will never be won proceeds to the next stage;  instead we can only marvel at Don Winslow’s genius at bringing this monumental tragedy to life with such cruel realism:  although this is a work of fiction, it was all based on factual events.  SIX STARS!

The Force, by Don Winslow

            Steven King has written an endorsement for the cover of Mr Winslow’s book, saying:  ‘Mesmerising, a triumph.  Think THE GODFATHER, only with cops.  It’s that good’.  And he is not wrong.
            ‘The Force’ is a huge story of corruption, the rot that creeps into the hearts and souls of men who start life with the very best of intentions, and the consequences that follow, planned for or not.  It’s a story of justifications, rationalisations and excuses, with a plot so chillingly topical that it is almost impossible for the reader to separate fact from fiction.  ‘It’s that good’.
            NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is at the very top of his game:  he heads an elite Drug Squad known as the Manhattan Task Force and his crime busts are legendary in the Manhattan North area they patrol, which includes the Black Projects in Harlem.  He is justly feared by dealers and addicts alike and he and his team Hold the Line against the various ethnic gangs hoping to gain a foothold in his domain:  he’s the King, and his team are his knights.  Mess with them at your peril. 
            He is also very wealthy, thanks to kickbacks, bribes and other easy money that various people pay him for protection:  he reasons that he deserves some perks for keeping good people safe, and if he and his squad didn’t line their pockets occasionally, the crims would spend it and that would be a waste.  He and his team have also risked their lives numerous times taking down gangsters, in fact they have just lost one of their own at a bust who left a pregnant girlfriend – because they weren’t married she can’t claim his pension.  But Denny and his men will make sure she gets a package every month.  They look after their own;  they are The Force – May Dah Force Be With You!
            Until the consequences from that particular raid turn up to haunt Denny in the shape of the FBI:  they have evidence on him that they have been collecting for months – they know he’s crooked and they can prove it (they say), but if he becomes their snitch they’ll ‘go easy’ on him (they say).  Graft, corruption among the legal fraternity – Denny knows things that would blow them all away:  they want names?  He’ll give them names, but he won’t rat on his workmates.  Never.  Never, until his family is threatened;  then he becomes that despicable low-life, a Snitch Cop. 
            The desperate measures that Denny takes to protect his loved ones and repair the irreparable damage he has done is the action that drives this breathtaking novel.  It is impossible not to side with Denny – crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but willing to murder a drug dealer who ordered the ‘execution’ of an entire family;  who used his crooked money to do numerous good things for his area; then did his best to bring down the worst culprits – the rich and powerful, the old money – and the old money-launderers.  The city of New York has never been portrayed so starkly and so well.  This is Mr Winslow’s mighty tribute to The Force.  His prose is as harsh and tough and funny as his characters, and unrelenting in its drive to depict one man’s loss of his soul, and his efforts to regain it.  SEVEN STARS!!!  (And every exclamation mark is deserved, so there!)
The Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova

            Twelve years ago Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel ‘The Historian’ became a runaway Best-Seller, thrilling readers (especially me!) with a tale that had everything:  secrets and ancient documents, a monumentally evil and authentic character in Vlad the Impaler, the barbarous medieval ruler who was the source of the Dracula myth, horror and suspense by the bucket load, and an intrepid heroine willing to risk her life to find the answers to the mysteries that confront her.
            With ‘The Shadow Land’ Ms Kostova creates a similar story set in modern-day Bulgaria.  Once again there is a powerful man whose cruelty is absolute, and a small group of people determined to undermine him – if they can.  This time there is no element of the supernatural, but plenty of very satisfying mystery and suspense, and the reader is happily hooked into the story in the very first chapter – as in ‘The Historian’. 
Ms Kostova’s protagonist, Alexandra Boyd, is a young American on her first trip to Eastern Europe.  She has accepted a job as an English tutor in a language Institute in Sofia, and is near tears as she realises that after seemingly endless travelling and crossing of time zones - what time is it now? – what day is it! – she finds that her taxi driver has delivered her to the wrong hotel:  instead of the student hostel that she can afford, she has been taken to a much grander establishment which is laughably out of her price range.  As she sits dejectedly on the sweeping steps leading up to the hotel entrance contemplating her luggage and her dwindling finances, a chance encounter with an elderly couple and their son and her efforts to assist them and their bags to a taxi changes her plans, and her life.  Alexandra discovers that in the profusion of luggage an extra bag has been mixed up with hers, a small valise containing a beautifully carved wooden box, and in the box, human ashes.
Alexandra is appalled to think that she has the last precious remains belonging to the family whom she assisted so briefly – she heard them mention a monastery to the taxi driver who took them away:  well, the only honourable solution is to follow them in another taxi so that she can return their precious cargo.  The day is not progressing well!  Especially when she finds that the beautiful little casket with its sad contents is really a Pandora’s Box of trouble unleashed:  the more she investigates in her efforts to find the owners, the more sinister attention is directed to her and the kind taxi driver who offers to help her (and he seems to have plenty of secrets of his own).  Alexandra ends up seeing much more of wild and beautiful Bulgaria than she ever expected to as they pursue their quest, and it soon becomes apparent that the owners of the box are in great danger from a very powerful enemy, a man who feared and hated the courageous and honourable musician whose ashes are in the box.

The parallel story of Bulgarian violinist Stoyan Lazarov is told in alternate chapters, of his fall from grace during the communist regime and the terrible punishments he endured in so-called ‘work’ camps after the war and Russian ‘Liberation’, but Ms Kostova’s characters and their travails are so compelling that it was hard for me to switch from Alexandra’s contemporary adventures to Stoyan’s historic troubles without feeling a reluctance to leave each unforgettable character -  surely the hallmark of great storytelling.  FIVE STARS    

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