By Don Winslow
William Morrow, $27.99, 479 pages
Don Winslow has stated in interviews that he has always wanted to write a book about New York City cops.
He says he was influenced heavily in his youth by books and films from the 1970s, such as “The French Connection,” “Serpico” and “Prince of the City.” There are many passages in Mr. Winslow’s new crime novel, “The Force,” that are reminiscent of those gritty and realistic cop books and films.
Mr. Winslow’s previous novels, “The Power of the Dog” and “The Cartel,” covered the Mexican drug cartels. In those fine novels he accurately and vividly portrayed the cartel’s mass murders and mass corruption. In “The Force,” Mr. Winslow covers what one might call “ground zero” in the war on drugs — the streets of New York City.
The main character in “The Force” is NYPD Seargent Danny Malone, an Irish-American rogue cop who is the boss of an elite squad called Manhattan North Special Task Force, better known as “Da Force.” But with nearly all of the police officers portrayed as corrupt in the novel, one gets the impression that Danny Malone is not a rogue at all. He is simply very good at being a bad cop.
Mr. Winslow calls Da Force “the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, the best, the baddest.” And, I might add, the most corrupt. Assigned to fight drugs and guns, as guns kill and drugs incite the killings, the squad is a holy terror to the drug traffickers and gangs on the streets. The squad provides aid and security to the citizens of the poor community, but they also steal money and drugs from the criminals and otherwise abuse their authority.
The novel, written from the viewpoint of Malone, opens with Malone in a federal lock-up. Him, a hero cop. The son of a hero cop. And most of all, we are told, a guy who knows where all the skeletons are buried, because he put half of him there himself.
The story flashes back to how Malone came to be in federal custody and then moves forward with the drastic actions he takes to save himself and his family. The novel offers up dramatic drug raids and rip-offs, murders and violence, and profane language.
Mr. Winslow describes Malone as six two and solidly built. He’s 38 and knows he has a hard look to him, with tattoos on his broad forearms, heavy stubble even when he shaves, short-cropped black hair, and blue eyes that say don’t mess with me. He has a broken nose and a small scar over the left side of his lip.
“What can’t be seen are the bigger scars on his right leg — his Medal of Valor scars for being stupid enough to get himself shot,” Mr. Winslow writes. “That’s the NYPD, he thinks. They give you a medal for being stupid, take your badge for being smart.”
Through his character Danny Malone, Mr. Winslow informs us that cops first see the victim and then the perpetrator. From the baby a crack-addicted mother dropped into a bathtub to the kid beaten by one of his mother’s many live-in boyfriends. From the elderly woman whose hip is broken when a purse-snatcher knocks her down to the 15-year-old dope slinger gunned down on the street.
“The cops feel for the vics and hate the perps, but they can’t feel too much or they can’t do their jobs and they can’t hate too much or they’ll become the perps,” Mr. Winslow writes. “So they develop a shell, a “we hate everybody” attitude force field around themselves that everyone can feel from 10 feet away.”
“You gotta have it, Malone knows, or this job kills you, physically or psychologically, or both.”
Mr. Winslow spent years researching this novel, and it shows. Having covered the police for a good number of years, the novel’s scenes and dialogue ring true to me. Mr. Winslow says he is very pro-cop and he has dedicated the novel to a list of law enforcement officers who were murdered during his years of research.
I only wish that Mr. Winslow had offered more characters based on the many good and honest cops on the job. By my count, there is an honest FBI agent and only one police officer in the novel who is not corrupt — and he is presented as being overly ambitious.
Yes, there are dirty cops, and yes, there is corruption in the justice system, as the many scandals over the years have shown us. But “The Force” is a cynical and grim portrait of a totally corrupt system.
Nevertheless, “The Force” is a superb crime novel. It is exciting, entertaining and enlightening.
• Paul Davis, a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism, has gone on out on patrol with police officers and accompanied narcotics officers on drug raids.