Detective Sergeant Denny Malone leads the Manhattan North Special Task force. He is the King of Manhattan North, or the king of kings, leading their blue-uniformed knights as he and his three-man crew enforce their domination over the neighbourhood, ‘Da Force’ battling with the gangs to protect a population that sees them as part of an occupation force. It’s a never-ending battle, and it’s one in which he and his crew have become very wealthy making compromises as they do business in their nominal fiefdom. Dope is the currency of these streets, dope and guns, and you can’t run the streets if you don’t deal in that currency. Malone is from Staten Island, from a family of Irish cops and firefighters. He went on the pad bit by bit, and now he controls, or tries to control the money he and his partners think of as feeding their families. But he’s left his family, and now is involved with a black nurse who’s a recovery junkie; a nod back to Heywood Gould’s script for the film Fort Apache: The Bronx, perhaps, and Rachel Tictotin’s take as cop Paul Newman’s nurse girl friend.There is much that is familiar in Don Winslow’s superb novel, especially those steeped in the lore of the NYPD and corruption. The stories of Frank Serpico, Bob Leuci, and Sonny Grosso will ring familiar; books like Robert Daley’s Prince Of The City; Philip Rosenberg’s now-overlooked Point Blank, much of the work of Richard Price. But The Force stands with any of them, maybe even rising above them. Winslow’s writing carries this book to new heights of plumbing these depths. He has written about Manhattan before, the New York of the Fifties, in the wonderful novel Isle Of Joy, but this is something on a different level and vaster scale, something six decades more intense. Winslow deals, as you must with the moral ambiguities. In fact, morality is the greatest danger in Malone’s world; having fixed moral lines creates problems which are not covered in the cop’s catechism of violence. In the world Winslow portrays, almost everyone has a moral failing; cops, lawyers, politicians, preachers, feds, judges, DAs, journalists. Yet they all profess to a moral code; something you see strongest, oddly enough, in Malone’s stoolies.There is another force too, besides the NYPD and Da Force; it is the one Malone senses around himself and his fellow cops, a force field that is about to be tested beyond his comprehension. You understand this because of Winslow’s writing. He is inside the mind of Denny Malone, each choice, each rationalisation. You see every other character, from the equally corrupt head of the other Task Force to the wives and children of the cops, from Malone’s perspective, how they compete for his attention, his loyalty, his soul. And Winslow builds Malone’s perspective brilliantly. He gets things wrong; misjudges key people, which he realises too late. The book proceeds at a rush, fast-paced, pounding movement, taking the reader along with the visceral excitement and triumph of Malone’s world, the building speed as his skates over and around the mounting dangers. And when those dangers begin to turn on him, the pace of the book slows down, and the reader begins to feel the squeeze just as tightly as Malone does. There are twists and turns as it proceeds, but events around Malone are gathering pace just as they slow him down and narrow his perspective down to one of survival. In the end, it is a story of morality, of a moment where Malone followed his deeper feelings; ‘he still fucking cares. Doesnt want to. But he does.’ as Winslow puts it. So it’s also a story of redemption, that part of the catechism which Malone knows may well be impossible. Winslow’s superb drug novels, The Power Of The Dog and The Cartel, were big and powerful, but sprawling and detailed. The Force is something different altogether, big and detailed, but tightly controlled, brilliantly written, simultaneously thrilling, sad, and memorable.
The Force by Don Winslow
Harper Collins, £18.99, ISBN 9780008227487
This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets (http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)