The Hard Word Book Club takes on Don Winslow’s THE POWER OF THE DOG

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The Hard Word Book Club kicks off the year with a book that has turned out to be very topical. In The Power Of The DogWinslow looks at the history of the war on drugs in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The character of Adán Barrera, a powerful drug lord, is based on the recently recaptured El Chapo. You could say Barrera is the villain, but there are few innocents in this book.

“Everyone is rendered vividly in a story that entertains as well as enrages…”

The main protagonist is Art Keller. Recently returned from working in Vietnam with the CIA, he heads to Mexico as an agent of the newly formed DEA. Keller initially befriends Barrera, who is simply the nephew of a drug lord. As Barrera takes over the cartel and builds his empire, Keller goes after him; the two pull several people into their battle, including a crusading priest, a high dollar call girl, and an Irish-American hit-man. Everyone is rendered vividly in a story that entertains as well as enrages.

This is a book that provides a lot to discuss in style, story, and politics, so come ready. We will be meeting on Wednesday, January 27th, on the third floor at 7PM. The book is 10% off at the registers to those planning to attend. it’s over five hundred pages, so get started, but don’t worry – this action-packed novel will go quicker than you might think!

You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The Hard Word Book Club meets the last Wednesday of each month to discussed hardboiled fiction and noir. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Don Winslow

Don Winslow’s sequel to Power Of The Dog, The Cartel, is one of the most talked about books of the summer, as well as our June Pick of the MonthThe Cartel reignites the feud between DEA agent Art Keller and Mexican drug trafficker Adan Barrera, taking us through the war on drugs in the new millennium. Mr. Winslow was kind enough discuss the book, his approach to it, and the conclusions he drew from creating his opus.


MysteryPeople: What moved you to reignite the feud between Art Keller and Adan Barrera?

Don Winslow: The simplest answer is that it felt right.

But let me back up a little. At first, I didn’t want to ‘reignite the feud’ because I didn’t think I wanted to write this book at all. I spent over five years on its predecessor, The Power of the Dog, and it was an exhausting experience. I really thought I was done with the topic of drugs. I decided to write The Cartel (and thus reignite the feud) because the situation in Mexico had become so much worse, and I thought I had to write about it.

The two books combined – some 1300 pages covering over forty years – needed a strong through-line to give them a cohesive structure and knit them together in terms of chronology and theme. Otherwise, they would just be two separate books about the drug trade, and I want them to be, collectively, a saga. So the through-line between the two volumes is a story about the deep, bitter and abiding conflict between these two men.

That, indeed, felt right. The Cartel is a big story with a large cast of characters moving quickly across a fast-changing terrain. The Keller-Barrera conflict is like a laser beam homing device through that story.

But more important are the two characters themselves, who they are and what each represents. As they move against each other under the backdrop of the War On Drugs, each becomes more ruthless, more isolated, more angry and bitter. Their battle escalates as the war does.

Having said that, I don’t think that the two characters are equals – either in moral terms or in their importance to the books. This is primarily Keller’s story –a man sets out to do good, compromises his principles to achieve what he thinks is the greater goal, and then pursues revenge that he calls justice. In a sense, he’s right – Adan Barrera is evil, he deserves everything that Keller does to him. The larger question is what does it cost Keller? Keller is the war on drugs – he starts with every best intent, and it costs him everything he treasures, including his soul.

MP: Most of The Power Of The Dog involved trafficking on the California-Mexico border, while here it seems to have moved toward Texas. Did the change in geography have any affect?

DW: Tremendous effect. The actual events in Mexico over the two periods covered in the books dictated their locations. ‘Dog’ was largely centered in the Tijuana/San Diego area because that was the most important locus of the drug trade in those years. But to tell the story of what happened in the past ten years required a shift to the real-life battlegrounds of Nuevo Laredo, Juarez, Michoacan and Mexico City. Tijuana, while still significant, became something of a side-show – the events there were largely dictated by events that happened elsewhere. It’s a larger story that rapidly shifts locations because that’s what the war itself did. You were always looking at multiple fronts and shifting alliances.

The affect on the writing – on the substance of the novel itself – was significant. I had to describe the locations without lapsing into ‘travel writing’ or overlong descriptions that would have slowed down the action. For the most part, this was a matter of finding ‘brush strokes’ – quick dashes of color that gave the reader a sense of locale without bogging down the narrative. I spent more time on descriptions of Juarez because it was such an important part of the story. I chose do it mostly through the eyes of a local journalist who loved his city and hated the changes he saw happening. Doing that allowed me to give a more emotive account of the city, attaching feeling to location.

“The cartels aren’t in the drug business, they’re in the territory business – control of the lucrative (an understatement) trafficking routes. The prohibition is what makes their profit. We need to stop the futile insanity of the War On Drugs.”

MP: What draws you to illegal drugs as a crime to cover?

DW: If you write politics, you want to cover the White House. If you play football, you want to go the SuperBowl. Drugs are the most important subject in the field of crime, in fact, in society as a whole. It’s the front line, so that’s where I want to be. I want to write about other things as well, but it felt important to write about drugs.

MP: The female characters take on a more prominent role in this book. What did you want to say about the women in Mexico?

DW: The courage, moral backbone, and dedication of these women is awe-inspiring. The role of women during those years in Mexico is a vastly under-told story. You have women taking the roles of mayors, councilwomen and police chiefs when they knew that their predecessors had been killed. And they did it anyway – with mostly tragic results. I don’t know how to account for that kind of courage.

MP: How do you keep a story this mammoth in control?

DW: Even before I decided to write the book, I knew that control would be the major challenge. The first thing I did was to establish a chronology of the actual events in Mexico during those years. That alone was a 157 page single-spaced document. Then I went through it to find the watershed events – occurrences that had consequences. If an event didn’t cause a subsequent important event, I eliminated it. So the real life developments provided a rough chart of the book’s structure. But the spine of the story was still the conflict between Art Keller and Adan Barrera – everything else had to impact that battle. So then it was a matter of weaving Keller and Barrera through those events, while still staying faithful to the actual history. The book is a novel, fiction, but I wanted the reader to gain an understanding of the real background to the headlines. So I had to move Art and Adan where it would make sense. The other issue was point-of-view, deciding which character would be in the best position to take the reader through which event, while not losing touch with Keller for too long, and always moving toward an ultimate confrontation.

MP: While there is no easy answer, what can we do as a country to help the situation in Mexico?

DW: First, own our drug problem. It’s not Mexico’s problem, it’s ours. It’s just that Mexico suffers more from it. We criticize corruption in Mexico, and certainly it exists, but what kind of corruption within our own society makes us the world’s largest drug consumer? Second, legalize drugs. It’s our simultaneous appetite for drugs and prohibition of them that funds and fuels the violence in Mexico. The cartels aren’t in the drug business, they’re in the territory business – control of the lucrative (an understatement) trafficking routes. The prohibition is what makes their profit. We need to stop the futile insanity of the War On Drugs.


You can find copies of The Cartel on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Pick of The Month: THE CARTEL by Don Winslow

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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.


The Cartel hits the shelves June 23rd. Pre-order now!