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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Manhattan Nocturne, by Colin Harrison

This is a hard-boiled thriller from 1996, but it is also literature. I’ve searched for Harrison novels for some time, but this is the first work of his I’ve found. And it has met my expectations. It is terrific.

The author grabs the reader in two ways on the novel’s very first pages. First, he establishes the tough, gritty Manhattan scene, its dark alleys, its scandals, its dangerous people and its dramatic nights. Then he establishes the cynical viewpoint of a newspaper columnist assigned to satisfy the public’s demand for both titillating scandal and the ironies of justice.

The columnist is Porter Wren. He is a confident man who has a high opinion of himself and of his skills as a journalist. At a party given by his obese Australian publisher, Hobbs, he is approached by a beautiful woman, Caroline Crowley, a femme fatale who is used to controlling men with her beauty and has an equally high opinion of herself. She tells Wren that she wants him to find out what happened to her husband, the famous movie director Simon Crowley, who vanished and whose body was unexpectedly discovered in a demolished building. But Wren is not convinced that that is her true purpose for approaching him; and the novel’s plot revolves around a kind of duel they have, each trying to use the other, control the other, and, as they become intimate, to understand what makes each other tick.

An initial complication is that Wren is happily married to a smart hand surgeon, Lisa, and has two children he loves. So he is continually troubled by what he sees as a betrayal of both his wife and his children. But Caroline fascinates him, tantalizes him physically, and appeals to his professional instincts. And the tales she tells of her husband and of their relationship seem to remind him of the many other human relationships he has encountered and that have prompted columns that helped make him famous. Indeed, as a cynical narrator, Wren early on declares that “we live in a time in which all horror has been commodified into entertainment.”

The dead husband was noted for short documentaries based on real events, and the initial story line revolves around the tape recording of an embarrassing meeting between Caroline and the obese publishing magnate Hobbs. Which the latter is determined to destroy at all costs. But Caroline’s husband has created other tapes as well, including one that shows how a policeman was killed and another incriminating one which shows a strictly personal murder.

The story grows more complicated as Wren speculates why these tapes are important and how he can use them, and then it becomes even more complicated as he discovers what each tape contains. However, these complications also serve to deepen our understanding of Wren, for they show how human this cynical columnist really is. For example, one tape forces him to change his opinion of Hobbs, the boss who has threatened his journalism career; while another tape, that of the murder, deepens the moral questions confronting Wren, who is already dealing with the moral issue of his extra-martial affair with Caroline.

Overall, this is a richly told story of lust and greed on one hand, and of vanity, power, and human folly on the other. It is also a tale in which violence lurks around every corner. For example, Wren himself is beaten and maced, while his house is invaded and his little boy shot. As a result, he himself exacts his own revenge, which produces a violent streak in him the reader does not anticipate. Indeed, reading about the violence dehumanizes him. And then Harrison takes the violence a step further as we witness on tape the actual carving up of a murder victim. It appears that Harrison wants the reader to feel the horrors and the risks that challenge these characters, but for me he overdoes it—just as for some he will have overdone the sex in order to make Wren’s fascination with Caroline convincing.

These people share stories of seduction, lying, self-doubt, and shame. And, as a result, the author probes the rich inner emotions of these characters, as well as the rationalizations and the psychology of strained human relationships. Wren confronts a fascinating woman he does not understand but craves, a woman he knows is using him but who is hiding answers to a puzzle that fascinates him. What is she hiding, he wonders. About her real motive in seducing him. About her husbands’s mysterious death. About her relationship with Hobbs. And how can he get her out of his system, and then back to his own life?

The duel between Wren and Caroline reaches its dramatic conclusion when Wren finally challenges her. “No, Caroline, no. You brought me into this. You thought you could just…lead me around. But you didn’t study me very carefully, Caroline, you didn’t figure out how a small-town boy like me with not one connection in New York City elbowed and hustled and hassled his way to be a newspaper columnist.”

As Jim Shepard wrote in The New York Times, “The novel’s protagonist is most memorable when that small-town boy, for all his bluster, articulates with real sadness his understanding of his own wrongdoing, and of the damage he’s done to those he loves.”

Indeed, our final glimpse of Wren takes us into his core, and into the rich contradictions that Harrison brings to his portrait of this troubled man. “I wished then, with a final sweet pain…that despite my betrayal of those whom I loved most, I might yet prove worthy of their affections. Better then, I thought, that our respective confessions go unheard, that they fall away into time. There would, I know, be other questions to worry about, other dark crises of heart and hope; sooner or later life brings to all of us some form of suffering. Would that we were equal to it always.”

These musings, these probings of internal doubt, are what raises this thriller for me to the level of literature. And what makes me want to seek out more of Harrison’s work. (December, 2018)

 

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Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane

This 2017 work ends as a terrific thriller, but it begins as a daughter’s search for her father. It is really two stories about an insecure girl who does not know who she is, and is desperately seeking an identity. Rachel Childs was raised by a controlling mother, who wouldn’t tell her who her father was. The novel begins as she commences that search, is foiled, and begins again. It is a technique the author will use throughout the book: throwing up surprise developments that she must hurdle in a search for the answer to who she is.

She thinks the answer may be in the love she has never experienced. And she believes she finds it in Brian, who enters her life, leaves it, and then casually re-enters it and marries her. Except, we already know from the prologue that she is going to shoot dead a husband that she still deeply loves. Is this Brian? Such a prologue is a tool that thriller writers use to interest us in their story. And it surely works here.

For we have persevered through the first third of the book and her search for her father, a third which is well told and contains its own effective surprises. But it is not the heart of the book, and it reveals little about Rachel, except the needs she has. Is that to be the subject of this novel? For if it is, I found an elusiveness at the center of Rachel. And was not persuaded when, as a television reporter in Haiti after its earthquake, she has an on-air breakdown as a result of the horrors she has experienced. And when this breakdown follows her home, I still did not feel it. While it is intended as an extension of her mother’s coldness, all I felt in her subsequent denial of human contact was a hollowness. I did not feel the torment within her.

And so I never felt that constant withdrawal that keeps her off the street and confines her to her own house. It is a withdrawal that Brian will say he can cure. Because he loves her. But never having felt that breakdown, I could not relate to her desperation, to her search for who she truly is.

But then, one day, years later, when Brian is supposed to be on a plane to London, she sees him on a street in downtown Boston. And all her uncertainties return. Was it Brian? If so, who is this man she has married? Has he been lying to her? What is he concealing? Has he just pretended to love her? And so, the thriller begins. And it is marvelous thriller.

It begins with the tale of a rich mine in New Guinea, with seventy million dollars, and continues with two murderous gangsters, a mysterious corporation that hires them, the Providence and Boston police, a pregnant woman, a Japanese whore, and the dead Brian that Rachel has shot.

But is Brian really dead? What was his plan, and was Rachel a part of that plan? Or just a tool? And whom should she trust? In fact, has she the inner strength, the fortitude, to survive? Her flight from the police, and from gangsters, will take her to Maine, to Brian’s origins, then to an abandoned factory outside Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and then to a bank safe deposit box with money, passports, and tickets to Amsterdam. And the questions arise for the reader as well: Will Rachel escape? Can she survive on her own? And what has Brian planned for her?

There is no issue of morality here. The only issue is: what will work? With the reader pulling, as in all thrillers, for the hero(ine) to survive and to succeed. No, there is one other issue: what will be the cost of success? In human lives.  Lehane forces Rachel to face this issue, when he confronts her with death. “You have to bear witness to your dead,” she thinks. “You simply have to. You have to step into the energy field of whatever remains of their spirit, their soul, their essence, and let it pass through your body.”

And as she goes to confront a dead friend on the last page:

“But there might be some light upstairs and there would certainly be light when she want back outside.

“And if by some twist of fate there wasn’t, if all that remained of the world was night and no way to climb out of it?

“Then she’d make a friend of the night.”

Rachel, above all things, is a survivor. And she discovers she can not only turn the tables on Brian, for a change, she could also produce better ideas, as she does on at least two occasions. There is no hint of redemption, however, which one might expect from an author raised amid the Catholic culture of Boston. There is only survival, and the strength to survive.

Lehane, however, calls this a novel about identity, and I agree it is a strong aspect. Raised by a controlling mother, and deceived by two husbands, Rachel does not know who she is. “The book very much becomes a question of how much of any of us is a con,” the author says. “How much of any of us is a performance. When do you understand the moment? Do you ever understand the moment where that line has been crossed and you can’t come back from it?” But he has submerged that issue in a thriller that challenges her uncertainty, her insecurity, on a physical level. And that is what the reader is concerned about. Rachel’s fate. Not her psychology.

Rachel is also Lehane’s first heroine, after writing exclusively about the experiences of men. And in terms of her subservient role, her internal strength, her new maturity, she is a successful creation. However, she is not in terms of a character of richness and depth. Her growth is on the surface. Her maturity is geared to survival in the world. There is little recognition of the moral road she has travelled, of what she has learned about integrity, or about the responsibility of love.

I would note that the two reviews I read in The New York Times spend more time on the psychological insecurity of the Rachel we meet early on in this novel. It is there that they seem to find the human being worth discussing, rather than in the woman facing the thriller predicament she is soon confronting. But I wonder if this is not for a practical reason: they do not want to spoil the plot’s many surprises. And so they emphasize the distraught character that Rachel once was instead of the distraught woman she finds herself to be when her former world collapses.

I do look forward to reading more of Lehane. But I hope he focuses more on the inner lives of his characters, and less on their exterior. (June, 2018)