What to say about this book? Well firstly I should explain how I approached it. I had never read a Don Winslow before but when I saw that James Ellroy was calling this the “War and Peace of Dope War books” I knew I had to finally turn my attention to this stalwart of American crime fiction. The Cartel is a sequel; it follows on from an earlier novel, The Power of the Dog. So what to do? As with many of the books I read, I borrowed The Cartel from the good people of NetGalley and they expected their review.
Well I bit the bullet and shelled out for The Power of the Dog and read the two back to back.
And Wow. Just Wow.
I’ve heard it said that Ellroy is a sucker for hyperbole but I have to say that here he might just be spot on. The Power of the Dog and The Cartel are both marvellous achievements that any writer should be proud of. To be clear, you don’t have to have read the earlier book to read The Cartel, the latter can be read as a standalone, but reading it after the first magnifies the pleasure.
The two books are like a macabre soap opera, and I mean that in a good way; scrap that, I mean it in a great way. Adan Barrera is the narcoboss while DEA agent Art Keller is his foil. Barrera is sophisticated, charming, if not a little of the accountant. As with the Godfather there are others around him who are brasher, seemingly tougher. But just as Al Pacino’s character inevitably floats to the top in the movies based on the Mario Puzio novel, so does Barrera here. He’s just smarter than the others, more cunning. Keller on the other hand becomes increasingly bitter and isolated as the man he originally considered a friend escapes his grasp; his marriage fails, he becomes an isolated loner, a man obsessed.
I should stop here to say that I’m doing Don Winslow a disservice, someone reading this review could be forgiven for assuming these characters are crime fiction clichés, but nothing could be further from the truth. Winslow carries this all off with guile, perhaps borne from real anger. It’s clear from the pages that he deeply cares about the mess that Mexico has become and while he never preaches or allows his voice to intrude into the narrative, his research is painfully obvious. The descriptions of the atrocities carried out by the various factions are chilling, while Barrera is destined perhaps to become one of literature’s great monsters; no cardboard cut-out Hannibal Lector, more akin to the banality of evil that’s somehow more frightening. While on occasion he is present during horrendous acts of violence, more often he’s in the background, giving the orders. Many times while reading the book I was reminded of that infamous description Hannah Arendt penned for Eichman. There are numerous other characters, all vividly drawn. One of my favourites is a boy who enters The Cartel in the second half, who is moulded into a cold-blooded killer, first by the ZETAS and then a religious cult-like cartel, until he’s a hollowed out shell of a human being. Despite the fact that he’s a relatively minor character, Winslow has you completely occupying his soul in the passages where he features.
This is a long book and if you read it back to the back with The Power of the Dog, we’re talking almost a thousand pages. But it is so worth it. A blistering and angry read, it will completely change the way you think about the War on Drugs, drugs in general, and even the skewed relationship between the countries of the rich northern Hemisphere and their southern neighbours.
A glowing 5 out of 5 stars