Don Winslow Calls In to Hard Book Club Discussion of THE CARTEL

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

The Hard Word Book Club kicks off the new year with a mammoth book that will easily go down as one of the best crime novels of the decade, and possibly of the century. Don Winslow’s The Cartel got much acclaim in 2015 with its detailed and emotional look at the drug wars of the new millennium. To make this truly an event, Mr. Winslow has agreed to call into our discussion.

The Cartel works as both a stand-alone and sequel to his equally superb The Power of the Dog, with DEA agent Art Keller, coming out of retirement when his nemesis Adan Berra (based on real life narco El Chapo) breaks out of prison. Several others on both sides of the border get drawn into their vendetta with each other. Winslow draws from many real life incidents and people in this harrowing novel of money, violence, indifference, and corruption that can crush and entire society. This is a brutal book that pulls no punches.

We wanted to announce this book as soon as we could, since it is a little over 600 pages. We will be meeting on Wednesday, January 25th, at 7PM, on BookPeople’s third floor. The book is 10% off in-store for those planning to attend.

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

Scott’s Top Ten of 2015

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

If there was a common thread through the best books of 2015, it was ambition. Authors stretched themselves by taking on large subjects or writing something much different, or taking their series characters down a different path. All of these authors raised the bar for themselves and leaped over it.

hollow man1. Hollow Man by Mark Pryor

Pryor’s smart use of point of view puts us in the head of Dominic – Austin prosecutor, musician, and sociopath – who gets involved with a robbery and to continue to tap into his darker nature when things go bad. One of the freshest and best neo-noirs to come down the pike.

the cartel2. The Cartel by Don Winslow

Winslow’s sequel to The Power Of The Dog reignites the blood feud between DEA agent Art Keller and cartel head Adán Barrera in epic fashion to show the disastrous effect of the war on drugs in Mexico. A book that both enrages and entertains.Read More »

If you liked THE CARTEL, by Don Winslow…

  • Recommendations from Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

the cartelOne of the biggest books this year was Don Winslow’s The Cartel, a dark, violent, yet human look at the drug war and its effect on Mexico. For more crime fiction covering Mexico, past and present, I suggest these books.

9780615916545Federales by Chris Irvin

This novella about a former Mexican agent protecting a mayor who has taken on the cartels is the solemn and moving chamber piece to The Cartel‘s symphony. Both use the actual politician, Maria Gorriesta Santos, as a template for a major character. You can find copies of Federales on our shelves and via

9781489561541Quick by Billy Kring

If The Cartel didn’t give you enough grim violence on the border this one will. The Quick has one of the scariest villains I’ve read in the past few years and I read a lot of books with scary dudes. You can find copies of Quick on our shelves and via

9780805091298The Return by Michael Gruber

When a book editor gets a mysterious diagnosis, he fills a van full of guns, grabs his loose canon buddy from Vietnam, and heads south of the border to settle some scores. A rich prose style and engaging characters give us a look at life and death in Old Mexico. You can find copies of The Return on our shelves and via

Scott’s Top 10 (Okay, 12) Of 2015 So Far

Scott’s Top 10 (Okay, 12) Of The Year So Far

We are now in the last month of summer reading. If you want to go out with some quality crime fiction, here are some suggestions of books both talked about and deserving of attention. It was difficult to cut this list down and even when I did, I doubled up on a couple that shared a few traits.

the cartel1. The Cartel by Don Winslow

This mammoth, yet fast paced look at the war with the Mexican cartels is epic crime fiction at its finest. Full of emotion, great action, and sharply drawn characters, this book is destined to be on a lot of critics’ list for 2015 as well as becoming a classic. Even more entertaining, is that Winslow’s drug kingpin, Adan Barrera, has a lot in common with current fugitive Cartel boss, El Chapo.

bull mountainwhere all the light tends to go2. Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich & Where All Light Tends To Go by David Joy

Both of these rural noirs by debut authors show there is still a lot of life in the subgenre. These books view ideas of violence, kin, honor, and retribution with the eyes of an author with decades of experience and the energy of newcomer.

long and faraway gone3. The Long & Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

The ambitious novel balances three mysteries to look at the ripples of a violent act and the effect it has on the survivors. Great pacing and clean, accessable style allow for this rich, multi-character story to flow beautifully.

bishops wife4. The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

Loosely based on a true crime, this book gives us an inside and very human view of modern Mormon society. Harrison balances both interior monologue and exterior dialogue to give us a main character who doesn’t know if she can always speak her mind.

doing the devil's work5. Doing The Devil’s Work by Bill Loehfelm

A routine traffic stop for rookie patrolman Maureen Coughlin leads to a conspiracy involving a black drug dealer, white supremacists, guns, a prominent New Orleans family, and some of her fellow officers. Loehfelm renders the both the drudgery and danger of police work and the web of corruption that even ensnares good cops.

love and other wounds6. Love & Other Wounds by Jordan Harper

These short stories herald a great new voice in crime fiction. Harper has a cutting prose style that reveals the souls of violent men.

soil7. Soil by Jamie Kornegay

A mix of Southern gothic with psycho noir about a failed young farmer who finds a body on his flooded property. Kornegay knows how to capture people driven by their obsessions and at the end of their rope.

concrete angels8. Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott

Abbott’s inverse retelling of Mildred Pierce has a classic feel even though the story about a daughter caught up in her mother’s mania and criminal schemes has a modern psychological bent. A page-turner in the best sense of the word.

past crimesthe devils share9. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton and The Devil’s Share by Wallace Stroby

Two great hard boiled tales from the criminal point of view. Whether Stroby’s heist woman or Hamilton’s “reformed” criminal out for revenge, these books deliver all the tropes with a fresh take and pathos.

all involved10. All Involved by Ryan Gattis

This tapestry of short stories that take place in L.A. during the six days of the Rodney King Riots is both blistering and human. A historical novel that has a lot to say about the present.

You can find copies of the books listed above on our shelves or via

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

MysteryPeople Pick of The Month: THE CARTEL by Don Winslow

the cartel

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!