Thursday, November 29, 2018

Review of The Force by Don Winslow (2017, HarperCollins)

Sergeant Denny Malone runs a special task force in North Manhattan, tangling with various drugs gangs and trying to keep the peace. He believes in facing fire with fire, brazenly policing through fear and violence and doing deals with gang leaders and Mafioso, and he’s prepared to reward himself and his crew by helping himself to criminal assets. Things start to go wrong when he tangles with and kills a drug lord, one his team also dies in the raid, and the crew help themselves to several million dollars and fifty kilos of premium heroin. Now routinely well over the blue line, Malone is cornered by the Feds. They want the names of corrupt lawyers and police. He is not prepared to give up fellow officers, but once you’ve turned rat, you’re on a slippery slope. Malone is a schemer, however, and he knows the secrets of many supposedly upstanding citizens, that everyone is playing a crooked game, and they also have a price.

The Force is a tour-de-force police procedural, with well-drawn characters, a strong sense of place, and a complex, multi-layered, intricate plot that has more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti. These alone deserve five stars, but what elevates the book is its wider political and social reflections. Most crime fiction is also usually a slice of social realism that provides a commentary on society and its ills. That commentary is often incidental, with the focus of the narrative on the crime, the characters and the plot. In The Force, it’s front and centre. Winslow’s ambitious tale of cops on the take in New York is not simply an engaging, compelling tale, but a searing exploration of law and justice in the US. But having got to the end, I’m still not quite sure what the message is; but perhaps that’s the point.

Denny Malone and his crew police North Manhattan with an iron fist, as vicious and brutal as the gangs they take on daily, and the price they extract for maintaining some kind of law and order is skimming money from drug busts and receiving other gifts and favours. Their form of policing is based on fear and doing deals with the gangs and mafia. To the media they are hero cops who make key busts manage to contain the crime and violence in the city. Winslow also plays them both ways – as criminal and corrupt as those they police and also good cops keeping the neighbourhoods safe and providing for their families. Even as Malone goes off the rails, crossing every line a cop should never cross, Winslow has him oscillating between good and bad cop – asking the reader to empathize and sympathize with a man who has lost his moral compass. On the one hand, Malone and his crew are the inevitable outcome of a failed society and corrupt justice system – from dodgy police, to crooked lawyers and prosecutors, bought judges, and slippery politicians – but on the other, they make their own choices and lie in their own beds. They are caught between structure and agency, to borrow from sociology textbooks.

And this is where Winslow’s message gets mixed: we're asked to believe that Denny Malone remains a good man despite his crimes; that society and justice and legal system is so flawed and corrupt that price of some kind of law and order is a police service who can only do good through being crooked. Yet, the story screams out that society and the system needs urgent repair, or indeed a thorough reworking given its biases and flaws; that neither the crimes or the police actions should be condoned. The story is so rich, multi-layered and thought-provoking, however, that I’m sure other readers have varying takes. And this is the real beauty of the novel: it provides a rich tapestry through which to consider the urban society and the state of law and order in the US. Overall, then, a thoroughly engaging novel that deserves to be read and re-read; a great American-novel for the times we live in.

No comments: