I think that sometimes we define the crime genre too narrowly,” says bestselling novelist Don Winslow, whose latest, The Force (Morrow, June), is a morally complex narrative that peers into the soul of contemporary America by exploring the life of one very corrupt cop. “I mean, we talk about Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dashiell Hammett, and Chester Himes, and all of these truly great people, but I think we also need to look at Dickens.”
For the past few decades, Winslow has produced an important and varied body of work in crime fiction. In his early cult classic detective novels, such as Edgar finalist A Cool Breeze on the Underground (St. Martin’s, 1991), his breakout book The Death and Life of Bobby Z (Knopf, 2001), and the baroque, exhaustively researched drug war epics The Power of the Dog (Knopf, 2005) and The Cartel (Knopf, 2015), Winslow has consistently followed his own muse. Oliver Stone’s 2012 film adaptation of Winslow’s Savages (Simon & Schuster, 2010) raised the author’s profile, and The Force is currently being developed as a motion picture with James Mangold slated to direct. Several other Hollywood projects are in development, including The Winter of Frankie Machine (Knopf, 2006) and The Cartel (with Ridley Scott as director).
In The Force, NYPD Det. Sgt. Denny Malone, the leader of an elite squad assigned to a crime-ridden precinct in uptown Manhattan, is the undisputed “King of Manhattan North.” His team’s mission is to combat drugs, gangs, and guns, and they’ve been given the freedom to dodge the rules and use unorthodox methods so long as they produce the desired results. Malone has gradually slipped over the edge, however, first by taking small payoffs and accepting favors, and ultimately by committing murder and seizing millions in drugs and money.
As the novel unfolds, Malone finds himself under federal investigation and facing prison time unless he helps to indict certain high-profile figures. Meanwhile, recent police shootings of unarmed black men have brought racial tensions to a boiling point in New York City and across the country. Malone’s personal life has become complicated as well: his African-American girlfriend, Claudette, struggles with a heroin habit, opening a window for the detective to see firsthand the ravages of the drug he’s spent his career fighting.
An unflinching look at modern-day policing, corruption, racism, and addiction, The Force is the book Winslow says he’s always wanted to write. “I was very influenced by films and books like Serpico, The French Connection, and Prince of the City. They were some of the reasons I became a crime writer. I wanted to write about the current situation with police and inner-city communities. I wanted to write about these shootings. I wanted to write about systemic corruption. I wanted to look at the racial situation and say something about the current state of racism.”
During the course of researching The Force, Winslow spoke with hundreds of cops and gained an invaluable perspective on their world. “Cops will talk to you about clean money and dirty money,” he says. “For most of police history, money from gambling, prostitution, and that kind of thing was clean, but money from drugs was considered dirty. More recently those lines have blurred a bit. But still, I’d tell you that most cops would never take drug money—they consider it dirty—but others don’t feel that way. Drug money is a problem because there’s so fucking much of it.”
Because The Force is set in contemporary New York City, 9/11 casts a long shadow. As Winslow explains, the rebuilding of the city, both literally and figuratively, produced unintended consequences, including a partial resurrection of the mob: “What happened, in short, was that the NYPD—and I’m not being critical here—shifted so much of its focus from the mob to terrorism. When it did that, it took off some of its relentless pressure, and the mob started to make a recovery.”
The reader soon learns that Malone’s corruption, while profound, is fairly minor compared to that of the real players up at the top of the food chain. As one character says in the book, “Organized crime only wishes it could be as organized as Congress.”
At the heart of Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and The Cartel is a blistering critique of the United States government’s disastrous “war on drugs.” It is a theme that he returns to again in The Force, depicting the far-reaching consequences of the failed policy. “I keep hammering away on that, you know, that the war on drugs has had so many destructive effects, and it’s had an extremely destructive effect on police forces,” he says. “It’s made them into occupying armies in the inner city, and it’s raised the ceiling for corruption.”
Winslow, who lives in Southern California, argues in the novel that the unspoken goal imposed upon police in many inner cities is to contain crime, to keep it confined to poor minority areas and away from the more affluent, whiter neighborhoods. “Sometimes I think it’s easy—from our suburbs or whatever—to condemn cops, and some of them deserve condemnation, no question about it,” he says. “And I think that we have, as a society, racial attitudes and preconceptions, and out-and-out racism at times, and then we’re surprised when that becomes reflected in police departments. Those preconceptions and attitudes are ours.”
Asked whether he thinks the current political climate has helped to bring these attitudes back out of the woodwork, Winslow replies, “I think that maybe these thoughts have been validated again.”
Fellow novelists, such as Lee Child, have remarked upon the almost mythic quality of Winslow’s novels. “Well, my earliest influence was Shakespeare—I read Shakespeare incessantly as a kid,” Winslow says. “Listen, when I’m thinking about starting a book I often go back to Aeschylus and Euripides and those guys. Without being pretentious, I think sometimes I do bring some of those more classical allusions to our genre.”
Asked whether he feels sympathetic toward his protagonist, Denny Malone, Winslow is quick to respond: “Very much so. I think that he is a basically decent human being, and in classical literature the hero is a good person with a tragic flaw. That’s the definition of a tragic hero, whether it’s Achilles or Macbeth or whoever. I think Denny had that tragic flaw, and he slipped into that culture, that corruption.”
“I think we need to rethink all of it,” Winslow says. “I think we need to rethink our ideas about what policing is and should be, I think we need to rethink our ideas about the criminal justice system as a whole, including the hysterically named corrections system. I mean, what’s being corrected? Look, none of it’s working. Just ask yourself, what’s the easiest place in the country to buy drugs? The answer is in prison.”
Patrick Millikin is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Ariz.