Vice on both sides of the thin blue line

The NYPD in action: the malaise runs from street corners to the offices in City Hall (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Force
by Don Winslow, Harper Collins, £18.99

In The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, Don Winslow told the story of America’s war on drugs in exacting and devastating detail. Those books stand as impressive examples of journalistic fiction, with much of the material drawn directly from real life. It was with an increasing unease, then, that I raced through his latest hefty opus, The Force, a story set in contemporary New York that drips with corruption, seediness and savagery. How much of what goes on here is true? Knowing Winslow, probably most of it.

Denny Malone is an Irish cop who is the undisputed king of “Da Force”, an elite band of officers policing Manhattan North, one of New York’s most degraded neighbourhoods. Malone and his crew have recently been fêted for killing a notorious drug dealer.

What the press, public and police chiefs don’t know, however, is that Malone and his team also stole millions of dollars worth of heroin that they found at the scene of the shootout. This act of theft is the biggest play they’ve ever made. Da Force have always operated on both sides of the thin blue line, but it’s a line that gets even more blurry from this moment on.

In fact, Malone’s life and career quickly unravel as his corrupt ways begin to catch up with him. He is caught in the kind of sting that he should have seen coming from the other side of the Hudson River and is forced to choose between informing on his colleagues or paying for his crimes. Unmistakably Catholic themes emerge to do with guilt and confession, sin and forgiveness, as Malone (a very lapsed Catholic) makes his decision.

This is a violent and uncompromising book, and Winslow employs enough crime fiction tropes, from tracksuited Italian-American gangsters to commanding officers under pressure to get results yesterday, to keep fans of the genre very happy indeed. But, more than that, The Force is an achievement of genuine artistic merit that deserves to be read beyond the crime constituency.

The 2015 Booker Prize win for Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings suggests that the critical consensus is turning in regards to crime fiction. If this shift is fully realised then Winslow’s work should be seen as an important landmark on the journey to respectability. While the Great American Novel has always been the preserve of literary fiction, it seems clear to me that both The Force and The Cartel are the kinds of book that are, in their own distinct ways, also worthy of that lofty tag.

At times The Force comes over like a blood-spattered and drug-fuelled version of The Bonfire of the Vanities, with the foolish behaviour of one man used as a jumping off point for an examination of a society seething with societal division, racial aggravation and endless hypocrisy.

It doesn’t quite go far enough in following the motley crew of characters that encircle Malone (including an African-American community leader who makes plenty of personal capital out of Black Lives Matter; a persistent journalist; a bag man for the mayor; and many more) to make the comparison to Tom Wolfe’s sumptuous satire stick completely.

The Cartel, with its forensic and multi-layered examination of the drugs war, does better in that regard. But by focusing his attention on the rise and crash of Denny Malone, Winslow achieves something else that’s equally as impressive. Namely, a masterclass in the art of storytelling, and it’s achieved with brutal artistry.

While the book’s title explicitly refers to the elite unit Malone leads, it also perfectly sums up the author’s approach. Quite simply, the narration is delivered with a relentless power. Winslow drags the reader through with a grip that is impossible to shake. Even when plot contrivances arrive and action scenes escalate, my desperate need to discover what was about to happen next never dissipated.

Winslow’s main point is, it seems, that the corruption of police officers on the street cannot be viewed in isolation. The malaise runs far deeper, from street corners to the offices in City Hall.

Malone is a mix of committed cop, family man and disgraceful criminal. His version of the American Dream is simply to do the best for himself and his loved ones, and to take his share of the ill-gotten gains that people of a far more exalted status help themselves to on a regular basis. Winslow never lets Malone off the hook, but his anger at institutionalised criminality, which he paints as besetting the American justice system, is palpable.

Clearly, The Force is a book that speaks loudly to the moment, to a tense and divided America. But it also has an epic scope, pitching its anti-hero as a tragic figure of Hellenic proportions. Hubris, fate and all-powerful gods: Denny Malone is consumed by them all.