Title: The Cartel
Publisher: William Heinemann
Hardback: 640 pages
Publication Date: 25/06/2015
Don Winslow’s epic The Power of the Dog – the precursor to The Cartel, although this can be read as a standalone novel – was a vivid, violent dissection of the US-Mexican drug war that spanned three decades. Now, ten years after the publication of that book, The Cartel charts the intervening period from 2004 to 2014.
Like its predecessor, The Cartel is a hefty book at well over 600 pages in length. And stylistically, mirroring its brutal and bloody subject matter, it is a gritty and not always easy read. At certain points I found myself having to re-read sections, as Winslow avoids précising the dense and intricate tapestry of relationships, allegiances and moving parts that underpin the plot. It is certainly unlike Winslow’s more overtly polished surfer and drug books, The Dawn Patrol, Savages and The Kings of Cool. Although you suspect that it is a conscious choice on the author’s part to transmit the murky and gritty environs that the novel describes.
The Cartel returns to the first book’s central characters – Art Keller and Adán Barrera. The former, a now ex-DEA agent, is a recluse in a monastery, broken by all that has happened to him. The latter is still a drug lord, but one who must now conduct his empire from within the walls of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego. And they remain, as ever, sworn enemies.
And when Barrera, through various plots and machinations, manages to extricate himself from his prison, Keller will use any means – overt and covert – to stop his nemesis.
But where the previous book focussed on the cartels’ use of traditional gangster techniques to run their business, The Cartel shows the manner in which technology and the wider world has shifted these modes of operation. Taking on the ideas and ideals of global terrorism, the cartels of this novel are tech-savvy, knowing that – like Al Quaeda and ISIS – using technology and media makes for the perfect means to spread their ‘message’ through monstrous violence.
Most heart-breaking though, is seeing the many people caught up in events beyond their control, particularly the poor and the innocent. And seeing the beliefs and values of well intentioned people slowly eroded and destroyed by the vast machine of the drugs cartel. Whilst, at its heart, this is a thriller that moves along at a swift pace, peppered liberally with violence, what really makes Winslow stand out as a writer is his ability to capture the whole scope of this criminal and corrupt world. If you feel angry reading this novel, as I found myself, then that is undoubtedly how it should be.
What makes it all the worse is that this is, for the most part, based on reality. Winslow’s knowledge and research shines through, but it also turns a mirror on the underbelly of a world that most people don’t want to believe exists. One where even the nominal heroes have their hands bathed in blood.