- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
This week fans of crime fiction or good fiction in general will be hitting bookstores in droves for Don Winslow’s eagerly awaited masterpiece (and our MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month) The Force. This story – both intimate and epic – focuses on Denny Malone, a New York cop who heads up an elite unit and who’s corrupt practices catch up with him. The book gives a detailed view of today’s New York through police eyes. Don was kind enough to talk to us about the book and the world that inspired it.
MysteryPeople Scott: The Force shares some DNA with Seventies-era NYPD books and films like Serpico, Prince Of The City, and The Seven Ups. What was the main difference of the of the police force at that period and the post 9-11 one you write about?
Don Winslow: I was really influenced by both the books and the films of The French Connection, Serpico and Prince of the City. They’re part of the reason I became a crime writer. In some ways, things haven’t changed – police work is still police work and cops are still cops. But 9/11 did change things, especially in New York City. As the primary target of that attack, the city shifted a lot of resources from organized crime to anti-terrorism. Because of that the Mafia, which had been on the verge of extinction, made something of a comeback. Another major change has been one that has impacted society as a whole – computer-generated data. Police have largely adopted the ‘metrics’ that we see in business and sports, using sophisticated crime statistics to assign personnel, patrols and other resources to high-crime areas. The other major change is also technologically driven – the rise of personal cameras in mobile phones. Police used to work in relative obscurity, but now everyone is a journalist, putting police under an intense public scrutiny which has changed the public perception of police. Police shootings and brutality have always existed – the difference now is that they’re on social media.
“Police used to work in relative obscurity, but now everyone is a journalist, putting police under an intense public scrutiny which has changed the public perception of police. Police shootings and brutality have always existed – the difference now is that they’re on social media.”
MPS: It may be unfair, but you’re often associated with Southern California. Did the New York setting effect your writing or the story any different?
DW: I don’t think it’s unfair, I love Southern California. However, I was born in New York, have worked in New York at various times during my life, usually on the street. So those streets and alleys are part of my DNA as a writer. I was on those streets long before I was on the beach. I’ve always wanted to write a New York cop book. But of course location affects style – the language – the music, if you will – of SoCal and NYC are very different and I wanted to make sure I had the voice right, the feel right. It had to be more clipped, more terse, edgier, tighter. It wasn’t hard – New York City is extremely evocative for me, I hear that voice, that music, in my mind.
MPS: You really feel the lives and the world of these policemen. What kind of research did you do?
DW: In some ways I’ve been researching this book my whole life. I’ve worked with cops, hung out with cops, with their families. I used to frequent a few bars in New York where you couldn’t turn around without bumping into an off-duty cop. But specifically for the book I talked to cops, sat down for drinks and dinners. I went out on the streets with them. I listened to their stories, their frustrations, their victories and defeats, their hopes, their disappointments, their fears. I read a lot of books, a lot of journalism. And I spent time in New York, prowling the neighborhoods in which the book is set.
MPS: Denny is a character full of contradictions. As a writer, how do you approach a character like that, so they don’t read like inconsistencies?
DW: A cop’s life is full of contradictions. They both love and hate the public they serve. They’ll break the law to uphold the law. They’ll commit violence on some people to save others from violence. If they’re undercover, they often feel more connected to their targets than their bosses. Denny is more conflicted than most, but it’s the conflicts that make him interesting for a writer. I don’t find the conflicts difficult to write because internal conflict is part of the human condition. We always torn between our best and worst instincts, but it usually isn’t a simple matter of choosing good or evil. Sometimes we’re tempted to do ‘bad’ things on the service of a greater good – a constant struggle for cops. The difficult characters to write are the ones with no conflicts, no internal contradictions. They become monochromatic, robots. And I tend to push back against this demand for consistency. I think editors are more concerned about that than readers. Readers get it – people are complex, we do contradictory things. It drives me nuts when editors ask me, especially about a criminal character. “Why would he do that? It makes no sense?” Prisons are full of people who have done things that make no sense. Believe, I’ve talked with a lot of them. I’ve knows guys who escaped when they had literally a few weeks left to serve. You ask them why and they shrug. I know one who robbed a gas station on his way home from prison, twenty minutes after he’d been released. Why? Shrug.
“I’ve always wanted to write a New York cop book. But of course location affects style – the language – the music, if you will – of SoCal and NYC are very different and I wanted to make sure I had the voice right, the feel right. It had to be more clipped, more terse, edgier, tighter. It wasn’t hard – New York City is extremely evocative for me, I hear that voice, that music, in my mind.”
MPS: The main drug in the book is heroin, which is coming back. Has the return of the old narcotic changed the narcotics trade at all?
DW: Yeah, ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. The heroin trade is the same as it was before in the sense that it relies on prohibition to produce a profit. So when marijuana was universally illegal, it was a profitable drug to export. When it was legalized in several states, the profit went out of it and the cartels turned back to heroin, largely because the market had already been created by pharmaceutical opioids and the cartel could undercut by lowering price and increasing quality. The heroin trade has changed in the sense that the drug being produced now is more potent than it was before. An addict can get high for less of the drug and less money, but the danger lies in the heightened danger of overdose. Also, the cartels are competing to raise the potency of their product, so they’re increasingly mixing in fentanyl – increasing the potency by a factor of fifty –and other synthetic drugs. In the past few months, for instance, we’re seeing elephant tranquilizers mixed with heroin. So an addict who thinks that he or she is shooting one product might be shooting something much stronger, which is why we’re seeing an explosion in the number of overdose fatalities. The current chaos in the Mexican drug world, a by-product of the demise of Joaquin Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, means that there will be no product consistency (as we saw, for instance, with methamphetamine when the cartel took it over) for the foreseeable future.
MPS: What do you hope people who read The Force take away about the police?
DW: It goes back to your question about contradictions. Society demands that police do contradictory things: We want perfect security at the same time that we want absolute privacy; we want the police to protect us from vicious people by using the techniques of saints; we want them to enforce some laws and ignore others; we want them to be incorruptible in a sea of corruption. The contradictory demands are impossible.
I hope that readers see that the demands have a real effect – cop genuinely feel things, (even as they’re forced to pretend that they don’t) they take their work home with them. Day after day they deal with the worst parts of our society, they do the things that we don’t want to do, and it takes a toll.
You can find copies of Winslow’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.