The Force, by Don Winslow

I have never read a novel quite like this 2017 work. A police novel so vivid, so cynical, so hard-boiled, so honest, and so brutal. The Force is the Manhattan North Special Task Force, part of the New York City Police Department, which means it covers Upper Manhattan including Harlem. The story centers on Sergeant Denny Malone, a decorated 18-year veteran, a tough Irishman who rules his domain like a king. A king with an iron fist.

“The people,” he says, “don’t know what it takes sometimes to keep them safe and it’s better that they don’t. They may think they want to know, they may say they want to know, but they don’t.”

This is the story of why they don’t.

We meet Denny on the first page as he is locked up by the Feds. The novel then becomes the story of how this honest, idealistic cop became a dirty cop. How he became dirty as a result of the race war, the turf war, and the drug war, between the blacks and the Dominicans of Harlem. How he kept the peace among those gangs by looking the other way at times, accepting money from them at times, and in one case convincing himself it made sense to steal millions of dollars in confiscated heroin. He justified it by calling it financial security for his three-man team in case their corruption was discovered; otherwise, it would disappear into the system, including into the pockets of people they reported to.

We also meet the other two members of his team, Phil Russo, who is Italian, and Bill Montague, who is big and is black. The three love each other, believe in each other, and back each other up. There is no racial or ethnic element here. They regard one another as true brothers.

The first half of this novel sets up their own relationship, an often difficult relationship with their superiors, and the dangers policemen confront when dealing with violent gangs who are dueling for control of the Force’s territory. This section is a powerful portrait of police work. It does not advance the story, but deepens the roles of both the policemen and the gangs. It especially shows how, step by step, arrogant policemen like Malone, Russo and Big Monty can become corrupt.

Once Denny has been arrested, we learn how the wheels of justice work. He is pressured to betray everyone he has dealt with, beginning with insignificant street people, but also extending to both gang leaders with whom he has kept the peace and to other policemen who have been corrupted by the system. He is especially pressured to betray his partners, Russo and Montague—a betrayal that at first he refuses to make. But more pressure is put on him, threatening his family. Making him realize that if he gives in to that will hate himself. And at this point, a moral level is introduced. Leaving the reader to see both the good and the evil in this trio of men. And perhaps in all policemen. Which realization brings home the toughness of their job. And which appears to be a major point of this novel.

Once this point is reached, however, Winslow’s ending for his novel becomes less convincing. For Denny is told that a tape exists of a cop shooting a black man in the back, and if this is released, there will be a citywide revolt. And since he knows the drug lord who has the tape, he is told that if he obtains it, he will allowed back on the Force. But if he fails, public riots will spread across the city. And then to other cities. But is it really believable that Denny’s bosses will give him the responsibility to resolve this far greater problem? For civic leaders to ask this arrogant cop to save their city from destruction? To become a hero again? This seems to me to be too big a role for one man, even for this policeman we have identified with.

And, yes, he does achieve a kind of peace. But it is at a high cost. In the novel’s terms, he is allowed to vent too much. And in his own terms, he unexpectedly turns on his superiors, and then risks all to get revenge on the last rival drug lord. Whereupon, despairing of his own future, with justice hovering behind him at every turn, the author gives him an easy out that is too much for me. It is just too neat. It provides an ending to his story, but it is more an ending achieved by the author than one achieved by Denny himself.

But despite such a major caveat, this is a powerful novel. What gives it its richness and its depth is its awareness of morality and of justice. Not simply whether the end justifies the means. It also asks: as a representative of justice, being a policeman, should I be doing what I am doing? Am I allowed to administer justice, such as shoot evil people? Such as take their bribes? Such as steal their goods? And this comes home to roost when Denny is asked to go against the policeman’s code and betray his fellow officers. This is when he finally touches the guilt that his conscience has allowed him to ignore—the appeal to betray his brothers in arms.

Another richness not to be ignored is the smart dialogue that establishes the relationships among the different levels of policemen, as well as their relationships with the different level of gangsters. These policemen also deal frankly with their own conflicting interests. They even convert an innocent Jewish rookie like Dave Levin to their illicit and immoral ways. But most of all, this trio of detectives commit to each other. Until they are tempted not to. By weighing their family’s freedom against that of their partners.

What makes this novel stand out is the tension among the policemen, and with their superiors, the street people, and the gangs. As Janet Maslin says in her New York Times review: “[Winslow] paints a realistic tableau of police privilege, pragmatism, racial bluntness, street smarts, love of partners, and loyalty to what they call the Job.” She also writes: “Cops, gangsters, drug dealers, high-end madams: They all turn out to be in business together.”

This novel certainly prompts me to seek out more Don Winslow novels. From warlords to drug lords to society’s victims, he has captured elsewhere the underside of American society and earned many literary laurels. How have I missed reading his work until now? Was it because I associated the author’s name with that naval hero, back in the day, of comic strips, radio serials and, movies? (August, 2019)

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