They rip off drug dealers, sell dope and hide evidence. They take bribes, commit perjury and sell justice. They extort, threaten and assault. They snort, pop, screw, cheat and kill.
They also pull dead babies from trashcans, lift scalded children from boiling tubs and find families hacked to death with machetes. They kick in doors, confront lunatics and render aid. They chase, shoot, and arrest. They scream, cry, bleed and die.
They are the wavering blue line of “The Force,” an elite NYPD unit at the center of Don Winslow’s searing portrayal of cops trying to protect and serve themselves in a world where nothing is black and white.
Sorry. There’s no good or bad here. You want your heroes uncompromised, unsullied? You like your narrative with little slices of truth, justice and the American way? Walk on by.
Winslow dispenses truth in bucketfuls of gritty realism. Justice is a bedtime story for rookies. And the American way is greed.
The Force lives by a code with one cynical rule that nobody honors: You never rat, don’t sell out your brothers. Until you do.
Don Winslow (Photo: Michael Lionstar)
The keeper of the code is Detective First Grade Denny Malone, second-generation hero cop, the King of Manhattan North. He is the “Blue Knight” of this post 9-11 Joseph Wambaugh deconstruction. If Bumper Morgan is the finest fictional cop to walk the beat, Malone is his opposite. An anti-Morgan with sleeve tats, a penchant for rap music and a Harlem mistress hooked on smack.
Winslow opens with a better introduction: “The last guy on Earth anyone ever expected to end up in the Metropolitan Correctional Center on Park Row was Denny Malone.”
By the end of the prologue, Malone’s team has raided a Lenox Avenue drug house, his partner is dead of an accidental overdose, a Dominican gangster is killed and the detectives have stolen 50 kilos of Mexican cinnamon heroin called Dark Horse.
So there you have it, an 11-page denouement. How they arrived at this moment, how four guys who joined the force to uphold the law and went so wildly wrong, is the backbone of this 480-page epic.
What follows is pure and delicious trope, masterfully rewritten and savagely focused. A mashup of a hundred-dirty cop movies and true-crime exposes, reimagined and repurposed into one indelible storyline. Winslow takes these well-worn themes, bends them to his considerable will and comes up with something fresh.
Here is Malone making scores, shaking down sources. There he is staring at the corpse of an elderly woman shot in the head because she enjoyed sitting by the window.
We watch him work cases and we watch those cases work him. We see him take his first envelope, deliver his first kickback, sell his principles and justify it. We watch him get shredded by a perpetual motion machine with gears lubricated by generations of payoffs and deceit.
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We see Malone get caught. And we learn that, too, is an integral part of the mechanics. Some of the best dialogue revolves around Malone’s take on being a “dirty” cop. He’s not talking about crimes. No, he’s talking about getting caught, squealing, cutting deals. He tells himself he’ll never give up his partners.
Have you seen this before? Yes and no. The closest comparison is Robert Daley’s “Prince of the City,” the 1978 nonfiction book based on the exploits of NYPD narcotics detective Robert Leuci, who went from bad cop to undercover informant.
Is it coincidence that Winslow chose to make his cops kings? No more than finding Leuci (who died in 2015) credited in the book’s acknowledgments.
Call “The Force” Don Winslow’s Big Book of Police Corruption. Said with zero derision and plenty of admiration.
The Cartel by Don Winslow. (Photo: Knopf Doubleday)
“The Force” is Winslow’s first book since the publication of “The Cartel” in 2015, which is, quite frankly, one of the 10 best crime books ever written. His bloody chronicle of America’s drug war was a literary achievement, fiction wrapped tight around journalism. But more than just a visceral retelling of the drug war, “The Cartel” was an attack on the system that created it.
Winslow continues his attack in “The Force,” using the same methodology to lay bare the secrets of another dirty system.
He follows the flow of corruption through the city. Money becomes influence as it moves through the police department to City Hall, the courts, the federal prosecutor’s office and the legislature. From drug houses and Mafia-controlled bodegas to street cops, detectives, captains and chiefs. To internal affairs investigators, lawyers, judges and politicians.
Want to know how a $1,000 bribe can feed 10,000 mouths? Winslow’s going to show you. And you’re not going to like the way it makes you feel.
It is no accident Winslow set his story in New York. After years of writing almost exclusively about the southwest, the setting felt as if Winslow was making a deliberate statement, expanding his literary turf. Don’t believe authors use books to make statements? Check out the first chapter of Winslow’s book “Savages.” He wrote it as personal message to publishers. It’s two words long.
Los Angeles is certainly no stranger to police corruption, and it would have been easy for Winslow to launch his story from the smog palaces of Rampart and Hollenbeck divisions.
Winslow, who practically invented the surfer-noir genre with books such as “California Fire and Life,” “The Dawn Patrol” and “The Winter of Frankie Machine,” fully immerses himself in New York City. The result is city as a central character, particularly Harlem. He captures the neighborhood’s intense history, it’s contradictions, culture and people, from pioneers to project prisoners.
Unlike his earlier books, “The Force” has a singular voice. Winslow never shifts perspectives or uses multiple viewpoints. The story is Malone’s alone. We see the city from his vantage point and it is heartbreakingly beautiful and unforgiving.
The “Force” is fueled by racial unrest, backdropped by blue-on-black violence. Police shootings of unarmed African-Americans read like news reports. But Winslow doesn’t give anyone a pass as his book—and the city—burn to an inevitable conclusion.
It’s here where Malone cuts his last deal, uses his last bit of leverage. And if you’re thinking redemption, forget about it.
“You’ve been breathing corruption since you put on the shield," Malone thinks. "Like you breathed in death that day in September. Corruption isn’t just in the city’s air, it’s in its DNA, yours too.
“Yeah, blame it on the city, blame it on New York.
“Blame it on the Job.
“It’s too easy, it stops you from asking yourself the hard question.
“How did you get here?
“Like any place else.
“A step at a time.”
What: Join reporter Robert Anglen in a discussion with bestselling author Don Winslow on his new book, "The Force."
When: 7 p.m. Monday, June 19
Where: The Poisoned Pen bookstore, 4014 N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale
Admission: Free; $27.99 for the book.
Details: 480-947-2974, poisonedpen.com.
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