By Don Winslow, Harper Collins, 746pp, £20/$29
Sometimes, when reading a novel, it’s love at first page. I had that sensation about a decade ago with The Power of the Dog, Don Winslow’s brilliant, brutal crime thriller about the Mexican drug cartels. It told the story of the rapid expansion of the cross-border drug trade from the 1970s onwards, following two main protagonists, Art Keller, an agent with America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Adán Barrera, the young man who would be king of the powerful Sinaloa cartel.
That book, which ended with Barrera captured by Keller, was the result of six years of research on the part of Winslow. He further immersed himself in the war on drugs for its sequel, The Cartel, published in 2015, which was even more devastating and blood-drenched than its predecessor, reflecting the increasing levels of carnage unfolding in cities across Mexico in the years leading up to its publication. It was particularly impressive in the way it illuminated the lives of the many brave journalists tortured and killed for telling the truth about the cartels.
Now, with The Border, Winslow brings his epic saga to a close. At the beginning of The Cartel, Barrera escaped from prison, but by the end of it he was dead, shot by Keller during a gun battle in the Guatemalan jungle. So The Border starts with a power vacuum, and plenty of people keen to fill it. With Barrera gone, an array of narcos (drug traffickers) jostle for position, wanting either to take over his Sinaloa cartel, or challenge its grip on the lucrative heroin trafficking routes into America.
The removal of the story’s central bogeyman also gives Keller a chance to chase other monsters. He decides he’s done with focusing on the narcos, and instead goes for the other men at the top of the drugs chain. He follows the trail of cash north of the border to the American business interests who are more than happy to launder the gangsters’ drug money for them. In following this path, Winslow creates a novel unlike the previous two entries in the trilogy. He does not shy away from the violence that blights Mexico – early on a group of students are massacred to protect a drug deal; later a man is forced to watch his young son being blown up – but the big story here is the financial crimes being perpetrated in gleaming American hotels and skyscrapers.
On Twitter, Winslow is an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, particularly the President’s plan to build a wall on the US-Mexican border. He and his wall are in Winslow’s sights in his fiction, too. Trump is here in the shape of John Dennison, a businessman and ex-reality TV star turned presidential candidate, who rises to power on the back of racially charged rhetoric, promising to be tough on drug-takers and to build that wall. In chasing the drug money, Keller follows a trail that leads from a dank prison cell in a US jail all the way to the Oval Office.
If you admire Trump, you will probably end up calling the Dennison sections FAKE FICTION!! And if you believe in a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach to addicts and low-level dealers, you might disagree with some of the book’s pronouncements. If not, you can just give yourself over to an immersive, thought-provoking and thrilling read.
Winslow knows his subject inside out, but this is no dry journalistic exercise. Over the course of 750 pages, every aspect of the drugs war is covered. The main plotline about Keller’s pursuit of the drug money is backed by a head-spinning number of sub-plots, which Winslow handles deftly. Sometimes the narrative jolts and cuts off, at other times storylines are given time and space to unfurl.
The cast is vast, too. As well as the cartel kingpins, businessmen and law enforcement agents, we meet street dealers, lawyers, politicians, journalists, prison guards, Italian mobsters and many more. Memorable among this number are a truly monstrous cartel henchwoman, an undercover cop risking his life and sanity, and the old cartel general, out of prison and claiming to want to lead a quiet life.
Yet it’s the characters at the very bottom of the heap who are the most affecting: a couple of Guatemalan children attempting to reach the US by hitching a ride on an extremely dangerous train route, and Jacqui, a hopeless junkie, rattling around the world, desperately trying to stay alive. Winslow brings these characters to life with a controlled anger and it is through them that the book acquires its moral weight. These are the poor souls at the sharp end of the multi-million-dollar drug deals and tough-guy politics, from whom the men in suits are insulated.
Winslow has said that The Border is his final word on the war on drugs, and if he sticks to this pronouncement then it will stand as a fitting conclusion to a wildly entertaining, but ultimately devastating body of work.