Ten years ago, Don Winslow gave us his masterpiece, The Power Of The Dog, Winslow’s look at the first twenty-five years of our war on drugs. His portrayal of a feud between two former friends, DEA agent Art Keller and cartel boss Adán Barrera, gave us vivid characters and strong action while showing the United States’ mismanagement of and Mexico’s corruption in that war. It entertained and enraged. With his sequel, The Cartel, (release date June 23. Pre-order now.) Winslow tells us those twenty-five years were just the beginning.
The book picks up with our adversaries where we left them, throwing away the relative peace they had achieved at the end of the previous book. After escaping from a Mexican prison, where he was actually living pretty well by bribing the system, Barrera starts making moves to hold his power and territory. One rash order is to put a million dollar price on Keller’s head. This pulls Art out of the monastery where he had found sanctuary and thrusts him back into the life as he blackmails the DEA to put him back in the field and after Barrera. The two circle around one another, each fueling the cartel wars between such figures as the practically psychotic Zetas and a violent Christian cartel, and each scorching the earth and soul of Mexico.
Several indelible characters get swept up in this war. One of the first is Magda, a supermodel-turned-trafficker who becomes Adan’s mistress and a strong power player. A lot of the novel’s black humor comes from a narcissistic Texan who plays all the angles. His preppy attire leads to the name ‘Narco Polo’. One of the scariest and saddest characters is Chuey, a teen enforcer whose first kill is at thirteen.
“In the world of The Cartel, grace has been obliterated. Nothing is sacred.The cartels have become militarized. Women and children have moved from collateral damage to actual targets for murder and torture. Citizens either have to take the law into their own hands or become part of the evil. Indifference becomes the main villain in the book.”
Winslow peppers his novel with characters both symbolic and inspired by real figures. Marisol Cisneros, Keller’s new girlfriend, a doctor who leads a revolution of women against the cartels and Mexican corruption, is based on María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, the former mayor of Michoacán, who was also the basis for the main female character in Chis Irvin’s Federales. The heart and soul of Juarez, Mexico is represented in Pablo, a local journalist. The Cartel‘s dedication is to a list of journalists who were murdered or disappeared covering the drug wars during the period of the book. The list fills over a page and we are told there are more.
In my review of The Power Of The Dog, I described the novel as about people finding grace in Hell. In the world of The Cartel, grace has been obliterated. Nothing is sacred.The cartels have become militarized. Women and children have moved from collateral damage to actual targets for murder and torture. Citizens either have to take the law into their own hands or become part of the evil. Indifference becomes the main villain in the book.
Winslow lets few off the hook. The DEA is as responsible as the cartels, cutting deals with some traffickers to catch others. The US is just as culpable as Mexico, creating the demand for drugs and supply of guns across the border. All operate with the help of Keller and Barrera as they fan the violence, barely aware of their responsibility when the drug war affects their loved ones.
Winslow deftly uses violence in the novel, fully aware of how much he asks the reader to act as witness. He uses the right amount of detail; many key events, including a raid in a mountain village and the climax of the book, seamlessly integrating all sides. The denouement gives The Wild Bunch a run for its money in the final showdown category. He builds up to these moments beautifully, creating emotion and setting the stage for visceral attitude when such scenes explode. In other sequences, he only briefly covers events, or shows the gruesome aftereffects, to portray a country exhausted by brutality yet dedicated to witnessing such brutal acts.
For a mammoth novel, The Cartel moves. Winslow never loses his humanity and rage as he sweeps across a decade of rough shadow history to the wounded grace note it ends on. It captures everything great about crime fiction and makes it epic.