Friday, December 18, 2020

"The Force," by Don Winslow--Fiction Review

For today’s review, let’s talk about something soothing—just kidding, let’s dive into Don Winslow’s ultra fast-paced crime thriller “The Force.”

Don Winslow

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

There is an energy to Winslow’s writing, a momentum that doesn’t just propel you forward through the plot of this novel, but rather it feels like it flings you bodily. It’s in everything, in the punchiness of the writing, the structure of the story, the settings described, and especially in the manic characters who inhabit Winslow’s version of New York. I found myself still thinking of this book days after having finished it.

I like that this story isn’t a rehashing of the concept of watching the main character struggle with the best intentions but gets corrupted by certain choices and circumstances. No, that shit is all in the past—Detective Malone and his crew are dirty cops from page one. And right there, on that first page, is where the crumbling of their world starts to crescendo—implied by the first sentence! The pacing from there only barely takes little breathers, and sometimes I like an ultra fast-paced narrative. I like this book for that.

With this subgenre of police thriller/suspense, the world’s authenticity and believability are the book’s lifeblood, and Winslow doesn’t disappoint in that regard. In fact, with everything going on with protests and whatnot, I’ve said before that if Winslow had just managed to predict a global pandemic in the next few years when this book came out in 2017, he’d be a god damn prophet. So it feels believable.

What I don’t love about this book:

I don’t like Detective Denny Malone. I know, weird thing to say about a story I said I like that pivots around the character of Denny Malone. He’s vital for this story’s narrative—no argument there—but I still don’t like him. It’s not that I can’t stomach a protagonist who is a bad person. After all, I thoroughly enjoyed “The Godfather,” which I’ve seen this book described as “The Godfather” for corrupt cops. What I don’t like are characters who delude themselves into thinking of themselves as somehow justified, especially people in positions of power within society—like corrupt cops.

Speaking as a liberal snowflake myself—in more than one way given my lily-white complexion—this was an incredibly awkward book to listen to right now. I’ll give you an example, but first, as you might have read before in my earlier reviews, I’m an audiobook person. That’s important to my story. Quick aside, Dion Graham did an amazing job narrating. Anyway, back to the story, whilst grocery shopping, I listened to this book, on high, because grocery stores are noisy places. This means that if you are, say, in the same aisle as me, you might hear my audiobook blasting in my head. Especially when Dion Graham starts scream-singing “F the Police,” not that song’s actual title, by N.W.A. because that’s what the characters are doing in the story—looks were had.

But other than that, it’s just an odd book—a perspective from corrupt cops—to be reading while the public eye intensely focuses on how there is a problem with policing in America. It’s uncomfortable, and I don’t love feeling uncomfortable. I think that’s Winslow’s point though, there IS a problem, and we SHOULD feel uncomfortable. He uses his deeply flawed characters to illuminate those problems through their eyes.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Like I said above, right off, we’re told that Detective Denny Malone is a corrupt cop, and other authorities than himself have just caught up with him.

Then we smash-jump backward in time to get the story of how he got to that low point in his life. The narrative starts off with Malone and his crew taking down a major drug lord who tries to bribe him. Malone shoots him in the head. However, during the raid, one of Malone’s partners is killed. Pure heroin gets into his blood via his injuries, like a lot.

Jumping forward from there, we see Malone and his surviving crew go about their regular business as NYC homicide detectives in Manhatten North. Their methods to keep the citizenry safe—a relative term—are as simple and direct as they are brutal. Tensions between the police and the public have never been higher since another shooting of a black teenager by the cops has everyone on edge. It’s also here we learn that Malone and crew didn’t actually turn in all of the dead drug lord’s product into evidence and still have possession of it, intending it as a retirement plan.

So the task force that Malone leads is saddled with a new guy. It was inevitable since one of theirs died on that raid and hadn’t been replaced. Clearly, there isn’t much trust in the new guy because you know the whole corrupt cops thing. The scuttlebutt in the city is there is soon going to be a big infusion of guns in the city because two rival criminal organizations are looking to have it out with each other. The detective the NYPD taps to find out where and stop this shipment of guns is none other than Denny Malone and his task force.

While breaking in a new member of the task force, and investigating the guns coming into New York, and also trying to avert an open gang war—is when the feds spring their trap on Malone. At first, he thinks about giving them nothing, then he’s convinced to roll on lawyers, judges maybe, but not cops—cops are his brothers in arms after all. However, that resolve cracks as the reality of his situation sets in and flakes away. Eventually, after the rookie is killed and another member of his crew is critically wounded, it comes out that Malone is the rat to the feds. To save his own ass after what he rightly perceives as Malone’s betrayal, the last healthy member of the task force and the only other person left standing rolls on Malone, snatching Malone’s deal with the Feds for himself.

It seems like there is nothing left but for Malone to go to jail, but then, he’s released by the powers that be so that he can help them with one last thing, and maybe he won’t have to rot forever in jail. One of the powerful crime bosses he was trying to keep guns out of his hands has the shooting tape. They want Malone to get that video. When Malone sees the tape, he discovers that the shooting that the department said was “unavoidable” was actually an officer unloading his firearm into a kid’s back while that kid was running away. Malone doesn’t give them the tape. He gives it to the news setting off a protest in NYC like never before. After that, Malone goes on a suicidal one-man mission and takes out the cousin of the drug lord he killed at the beginning of the novel, but this time without his crew. Shortly after Malone disposes of the heroin in the river, it’s strongly implied he dies of his injuries, regretting the sort of cop he turned out to be.


“The Force” is one of those books that I felt alienated at many times while reading it—and frankly wasn’t all that certain that I liked it much. I finished it relatively quickly, though, and for days after finishing it, I kept thinking about this story. Ultimately, I decided that I did like the story. I just didn’t like the protagonists very much, especially Malone, because he’s ultimately the leader of the group. It’s a great example of a well-told story about an unlikeable protagonist.

I think I dislike Malone so much because he shows flashes of character, which suggests that he could have genuinely been that hero cop he was hailed as before everything unravels. To be fair, he does many heroic things, which makes him an interesting character—I can admit that he’s interesting without liking him. He also genuinely holds many positive values. He loves his kids, his partners, and his city—and wants the best for them. The problem with him is he let himself get dragged down, to start taking shortcuts and paydays. Like him, I’m mostly disappointed with the person he turned out to be instead of who he could have been.

At the end of the day, what “The Force” is a story is a post-mortem character study of a corrupt cop’s career. The decisions that led to that corruption are passed, already done, by the time we meet Malone and his crew. All that’s left are the regrets, which I felt is an interesting angle.

Parting thoughts:

Like I’ve opined before in this review, reading “The Force” was uncomfortable for me. I’m confident this was by design, and that’s an interesting choice for any artist to make. It’s interesting to me because, off the bat, some audience members might immediately put the book down, which is counterproductive.

Discomfort and alienation are valid human experiences, though, and so they should be captured in fiction. I would argue their utility is to inspire the audience to want things to change. Again the obvious thing would be to stop reading, but if a story rings of truth, and underlines real problems we face in society, then maybe the novel doesn’t need to change; the world it’s holding a mirror up to does.

Most naturally, a moderate at heart, I sadly don’t believe in simple solutions, like let’s do away with police as an institution in society. This isn’t to imply that is precisely what most versions of “Defund the Police” are after, but the subtleties of their point are lost in the buzzwords and catchphrases. For the record, I believe most approach the idea of defunding as a way of lessening what kinds of calls and burdens are put on officers that they might not have the training to handle.

For instance, in the case of an armed robbery, the police are called, and if someone experiences a mental health emergency—and is descending into a schizophrenic episode—the police are also called. One of these is better handled by the police, and one would be better directed to a mental health professional. My point is we rely on our police to wear too many hats and do far more than what should be their mandate, which creates exhaustion, mishandling, and worst, discontent. It’s that last one that drives groups apart and creates a it’s us vs. them environment.

I believe the longer we’re busy fighting each other, the longer we have to wait before we can start fixing the problems.

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