Don Winslow has no problem being called a “crime writer,” though his work has increasingly broken free of the genre. His meticulously researched, relentlessly immersive 2015 bestseller, The Cartel, about the narco wars in Mexico, had the scale and detail of a Russian novel; together with its 2005 predecessor, The Power of the Dog, it might prove the definitive fictional take on the unhinged, surreal brutality of the drug war. In between the two, The Winter of Frankie Machine (2006) offered an elegiac look at the past of a retired mob hit man on the lam, while 2010’s Savages was a highly stylized gonzo thrill ride centering on two young marijuana growers who run afoul of a cartel. Hollywood has taken notice: Oliver Stone directed the Savages adaptation for the big screen, Ridley Scott is helming a series based on The Cartel, and James Mangold has been attached to Winslow’s latest since March, long before it was slated to hit stores. It’s no surprise. At his best, the author brings an intoxicating combination of passion, authenticity, and grandeur to the crime thriller, expanding the very limits of the form.
This month, Winslow delivers what might be his most controversial novel to date — and certainly one of his most ambitious. Set in New York, and based on years of research, The Force (William Morrow, $28) plunges readers into the middle of a police department, city government, and judicial system rife with breathtaking corruption. At the center of it all is veteran cop Denny Malone, the head of an elite special unit, who is secretly in cahoots with the very gangs and drug lords he’s supposed to be battling. It’s riveting, infuriating, and ultimately deeply moving. I spoke to Winslow, who lives in California, about the book’s origins and about his own years investigating crime in New York.
You work on your books for years, and you’re often working on different books at the same time. When did you start with The Force?
I’m gonna say five or six years ago is when I really started to think, “I want to write this book.” But I’ve wanted to write it forever. Serpico, Prince of the City, The French Connection: These were the films and books that I cut my teeth on as a kid. I remember seeing The French Connection vividly — talking my way into a theater on Broadway at a matinee and going in and seeing that and thinking, “Wow, this is what I want to do. I want to write this.” And then later Serpico. I was living in the Village, and I can remember Pacino walking into the Riviera Café wearing that hippie Serpico outfit. Those are very much in the DNA of The Force. I wanted to write a contemporary take on that.
You spent a lot of time in New York when you were younger, didn’t you?
I was born on Staten Island. My dad was in the Navy, so we moved around a lot, and I really grew up in Rhode Island. But I would come down a lot to the city when I was a kid, and then I came back when I was a young guy to be a writer. So I got a job as the assistant manager of the Sutton Theater on 57th and Third, then later at Cinema 1 & 2. That led me to the detective agency to investigate theft in movie theaters, so I was down in Times Square before Mickey Mouse got there — when it was all crack vials and hookers. I was an investigator for years — I published six books, I think, before I could quit my day job. So I worked homicides and child murders and child sexual abuse cases and all of that kind of thing on the civil end, which sometimes intersected with the criminal side.
What drove you out West?
Crime. [Laughs] In the late Eighties, California was the arson capital of America. Everything that people had bought on margin in the Reagan years was burning down in the Bush years. So I was out here investigating arsons and homicides and insurance cases and fraud — you name it. And on an unexpected day off, I left my hotel and hit the Pacific Coast Highway, and in ten minutes I was in Laguna Beach and I was in love.
I know that you had to do a lot of research into the drug war for The Cartel and Power of the Dog, and that it took a lot out of you. Given the drug angle in The Force, did that research affect the nature of the story you’re telling here?
Maybe subconsciously. There’s definitely a fatigue and a sadness that came out of writing Dog, and especially Cartel. You can’t live with that every day for years without it affecting you. Not to be overly dramatic about it; I can’t in any way compare myself to Mexican journalists who really lived through it. One thing that I found out about cops — having lived with them forever and hung out and all of that, specifically toward researching this book — is the effect that the work has on them. They’ll deny it, by the way, because it doesn’t fit the image. But there’s a winnowing, an erosion effect that happens, just dealing with what they deal with every damn day. They really take it home with them. And the effort to deny that and to compartmentalize it makes things even worse.
Do you feel like the cops you interviewed for The Force opened up to you more because you had a kind of shared knowledge?
Maybe, but when I go to talk to somebody for an interview, I’m not interested in educating them about me. I’m interested in learning from them. A lot of the cops that I talked to were old friends. But others, no; I would just say, “I’m a novelist, and here’s what I’m doing.” I think that they opened up to me for a couple of reasons. One is because other people had said, “This guy’s OK.” And another thing is that I was just honest with people. One thing about cops is that [they’re] used to being lied to all the time. Cops are harder to penetrate than drug cartels.
Do you think cops are honest with each other?
To an extent. Look, I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “I can only talk to other cops. Only they understand.” That was a standard line. At the same time, police stations, like any other organization, are very political. And to cops, information is coin. It’s currency. They don’t necessarily give it away to each other either. Guys and women who’ve worked together for a long time develop a certain honesty with each other, but I think there’s a lot of holdback too. There’s interdepartmental holdback, there’s intradepartmental holdback inside squads, all of that for information. On the emotional end, I think there’s a lot of pretense. There are guys who are not going to come out and say what they’re feeling or what impact something’s had, because that’s not the image and that’s not what’s expected of them.
With Denny Malone, you’ve created a kind of character that feels very rare in contemporary crime fiction. Some will read this book and say, “This guy is an absolute piece of shit. He’s corrupt, he’s racist. Fuck this guy.” Others will see a good guy gone bad.
I’m not interested in being a judge or a jury on my characters. They are who they are, and Denny was an easy character to write. I felt I knew him really well. I sometimes spend years thinking about a character before I’ll start to write a book. If I don’t know those guys, I don’t write it, period, because it’ll be crappy.
The style of The Force jumped out at me, too. With crime writers, there’s often a real stylistic and tonal consistency to their work, but yours has a lot of stylistic variation. The Force feels a lot looser, a lot more immediate than some of your other books — as if I’m getting a raw feed from the protagonist’s mind. Do you sit down beforehand and envision what the style will be, or does it just kind of come out and it is what it is?
It’s more organic, I think. It’s actually been a problem with my career, frankly. People say, “Well, you’re too variable.” And listen, I don’t mean any disrespect to the other guys. I could read Spenser novels all the time; I couldn’t tell you the plot of a Spenser novel, but they’re so beautifully written and the characters are so great. And think of Raymond Chandler — he’s our demigod. But that’s never been me. My first five novels were a series, and I think they got boring, frankly. I think style follows story, and character. I try to write from the inside. Even though I write in the third person, there’s sort of a first-person point of view that gets snuck in there. Especially writing in the present tense like I usually do. I mean, Savages, man, I don’t even know where that came from. I just sat one day and I typed out, “Fuck you,” because I was just pissed off. And then all of a sudden I’m writing from the point of view of a 26-year-old Orange County woman, which I’m not. [Laughs] Although I’ve hung out with those people a lot, you know. So that required its own kind of voice, and that book to me has always been more about language than about anything else.
In writing Denny Malone, though, I made a conscious choice, which was an unusual one for me — which was to write from just the single point of view. You know, you never leave this cat during this trip. And I really debated that with myself, because there were times when it would’ve been easier to have given information from a different point of view. But then I thought, no, I’m writing about a guy who’s caught in this dilemma that he can’t get out of. I wanted the reader to have that same feeling. And not give the reader a break, or a different point of view — just to keep them in that story and in that action.
With The Force, you also get to an aspect of the drug war that isn’t touched on as much. In the character of Claudette, Denny’s girlfriend, you’ve got this character who’s wrestling with addiction day in and day out, and it’s this gut-wrenching, never-ending cycle of pain.
It’s a complicated world, isn’t it? Here’s this guy who I think is sincerely very much in love with this woman, in some ways because of her flaws. And at the same time, in order to save his partners, in order to do what he wants to do, he goes out and puts the same heroin that’s poisoning her out on the streets. He sees the contradictions. He’s not a stupid guy. But he lives with the contradiction, until the end.
You’ve also been very outspoken about the sheer hypocrisy of people who don’t think twice about lighting up a joint and yet will fight over fair-trade coffee and free-range chicken…
Yeah, people who want to make sure that a chicken has sufficient acreage, but then will buy cocaine that’s made by people who murder children. I don’t get it. I don’t want to turn this into a sermon, because I can get crazy about this stuff. Drugs should be legalized, but nobody should be buying recreational drugs until the laws change. That’s an easy thing to say; it doesn’t take into account addiction and all those other things. But everyone gives me the same answer about marijuana, for instance. They say, “Oh, I only get the stuff my cousin Jimmy grows in his garden box.” Well, your cousin Jimmy must have some big fuckin’ garden, because this shit’s coming in by the truckload.
The book arrives at a time of raging debate over a number of issues — police violence, systemic racism, corrupt cops. Do you worry that people won’t be able to see the book for what it is, and will simply see it in the context of those debates?
I worry about that a little bit, but I’m a novelist. My job is to bring people into a world [where] they otherwise couldn’t go, or to help them see it in a different way. At the end of the day, I can’t worry about what sort of political or moral or ethical conclusions people are gonna draw from or about the book. My job is to be subjective: If I can accurately portray that world and see it through those characters’ eyes, then I’ve gotta let the rest of those chips fall where they may. With The Force, the timing is really more or less coincidental. This was the book I was going to write. But I definitely wanted to address those issues, because that’s what policing is about these days. What’s changed? There’s cell phones. That’s all that’s really changed. Every citizen is now a journalist. So this shit has gone on always, but now everything’s recorded. And that’s changed our view of these issues, literally and symbolically.
It’s a lot different from your days in Times Square back in the Seventies and Eighties, which is an era people tend to romanticize, but which sounds absolutely terrifying. What was the craziest thing you saw when you were working in movie theaters?
I could tell you so many stories. The first night of my job there was a guy ululating in the balcony, and we had this usher who was pissed that he didn’t get my job, a huge guy from Avenue U in Brooklyn. He said, “What should I do with this guy?” I said, “Throw him out.” And the movie showing was Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety, which has an irony to it. I’m standing in the concession counter, and I see a body just come, boom! Down from the balcony. This usher had grabbed him, dragged him to the railing, and bench-pressed him over it. And he comes down and he says, “I did what you told me to do, I threw him out.” And there’s dead silence in this theater right now, during a Mel Brooks movie. I think, “Man, I’ve had this job for, like, seventeen minutes and I’m gonna get fired.” So I — this is awful, man, I’m confessing a felony to you — we dragged the guy out into the alley. And I woke him up and I said, “Man, you’re lucky. You know, if I see you again, I’ll have him kill you. Now get out of here.” And I never heard about it again, and I got to keep my $105 a week.
Oh my god.
There were brawls. I had guys die. You know, the show would end and someone’s still sitting there and then you realize they’re never getting up. I had a projectionist die one time in the booth. I heard the crowd booing, and then the movie’s off the screens. This is when there were carbon arc projectors, so a lot of times these projectionists would just fall asleep or they’d be screwing somebody up there and they’d forget to change the carbon arc. So I go up there…and the guy’s dead on the floor. I called the cops, and then I thought — this is how sick you’d get after being in New York for a few years in those days — I thought, “This is my big chance to actually shame a New York audience.” So I went into this theater and I looked at them, I said, “I’m very sorry for the inconvenience. The projectionist has passed away. We have someone going up there now, and your film will be on shortly.” And they booed me!
In the Times Square movie theaters, man, everything, everything you could imagine. The ushers were running prostitution services out of the storage closets. There were shootings and knife fights, and there was some nut that would get on the roofs of these buildings and toss cinder blocks off, so if you went into the alley, you’d walk with your back firmly pressed to the wall, hoping the trajectory of the cinder block would go over you. There are things you can’t print that went on in there.
By Don Winslow