Don Winslow is a stalker. And as far as criminals go, a leader of the pack. Winslow is out there prowling the streets of New York poking his nose in, inhaling the stench, digesting the smoke and oxygen in his lungs and breathing them out as junkie poetry. Right in your face. Dickens did the same amid the fog and bruised ideals of Victorian London. Ellroy reigns over Los Angeles, his staccato jazz punctuating the west coast and rousing its inhabitants from a sun-drenched slumber. But Winslow could well have just heisted the crown for king of New York. Sure, most of his other stuff is set in California or concerned with the drug trade in Mexico, but with The Force, Winslow has staked his claim over America’s most densely populated city and breathed fresh death into it. He’s no imitator; rather an instigator and interrogator rolled into one. He’s an original.
To read his new novel The Force is like getting the city’s best tour guide all to yourself. Which means one that isn’t paid by a tourism board with vested interests. Forget the open top bus or the horse-drawn chariots of Central Park and their bubbles of romantic nostalgia; this is a navigator who roams the gutters, pool halls, factories, slums, back offices and police cars of the city. It’s like his pen is tapped into the water supply from the harbour to the penthouses. A stalker without discrimination but with fluid determination. No crack is too tight.
On its fractured surface, The Force is an eye-opening, soul-charging novel about cops. Some you’d label dirty; others clean but they’re both washed in the same machine. It hardly matters when the system that funds and feeds them is essentially corrupt.
Winslow, too galvanised for contempt, tells us that the system has adapted to become that way to match its enemy and serve its masters, edging an entire city closer and closer to an incident pit. You care for Winslow’s ensemble of lean characters but it’s the drunk backdrop, teetering and threatening while close to vomit and rage, that hooks you. And, like those guys still playing the violin as the Titanic went down, Winslow counterbalances poetry with devastation. It’s that chemistry that creates the spark behind The Force.
So don’t expect whimsy in Central Park. Winslow’s New York isn’t the one Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly danced around in On The Town. It’s the one that put holes in John Lennon. It’s the one where cops take the stand and “testylie” to ensure a conviction. For Winslow, New York’s playing field is tilted uphill – a ratrace of lemmings slipping and sliding, dragging the ignorant down with them.
It’s this snakes and ladders of sordid society that Winslow is interested in: the social climbers and leppers who infect them on their way to the top. Yeah, it’s a brutal read but better them than you and when was the last time you resisted the urge to glare at a car crash on the other side of the road while you drove by tucked up all safe and sound?
In Detective Sergeant Denny Malone, Manhattan North, leader of a notorious no-holds-barred smash and shake police team dubbed “Da Force”, Winslow gifts us an unforgettable character that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sidney Lumet crime film (in particular the thematically similar Prince of the City). How Winslow orchestrates empathy and understanding for what many would label as a disgrace to his badge is exemplary writing. The progression of the plot as it twists and contorts like a junkie’s veins is mesmerisingly realistic and enveloping to the reader. It never feels like fiction, let alone another NYPD pot boiler. This is searing, soaring literature masquerading as airport bookshop fodder. “How do you cross the line?” Winslow muses. The immediate response: “Step by step”. How does Winslow get to the beating heart of corruption? Page by page.
This is a novelist at the top of his game and a hell of a social critic to boot. Step by step. Shot by shot. Hit by hit. Wire by wire. Page by page. It’s worth it. The Force is my read of the year.