The Force by Don Winslow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Why bother calling 9-1-1 to report a crime when the cops are the biggest criminals on the streets and everyone knows it?
Denny Malone isn’t just your average police detective. He’s also one of the best cops the NYPD has who runs an elite unit nicknamed Da Force that takes on the worst cases involving gang and drug crimes, and he rules his Manhattan North turf along with the partners he loves like brothers. The thing is that Malone is also as crooked as a dog’s back leg because he beats suspects, rips off drug dealers, routinely perjures himself, and takes kickbacks from defense attorneys for referrals. He also has a steady side gig as a bag man running cash between the mob and city officials as well as cutting deals with judges and prosecutors to throw out cases. However, Malone finds himself jammed up by the Feds and is soon wrapped up a situation where all his options are bad and everything he does is a betrayal of someone he cares for.
If you’ve watched The Shield this might sound a little familiar. There’s also a lot of the same kind of behind-the-scenes exploration into all the ways that the system is broken which is what The Wire spent a lot of time exploring. This is Don Winslow exploring a lot of that same territory.
I love The Shield. I love The Wire. I love Don Winslow’s writing.
So why didn’t I love this?
I think it’s a matter of tone and character which are tied tightly together by the nature of Winslow’s style. As he’s in done in several other books Winslow uses a conversational stream-of-consciousness flow as narration. We’re getting the story from Malone’s point of view, but it’s as if it’s being told to us by a very good buddy of his who knew what he was thinking and feeling every step of the way as well as giving us the lowdown on the local history so that we understand the context of why everything is happening.
Winslow is a master of this, but it went a little wrong for me this time. The other books where he used it such as Savages and Dawn Patrol were set in Southern California and had this laid back voice to them. Like some half-stoned surfer was telling you the tale over a Corona at some beachside bar. Since The Force is set in New York it now feels like we’re being told the story in some grimy tavern over a shot and a beer, and the guy telling it is a streetwise cop with a go-fuck-yourself-if-you-don’t-like-it attitude. And that’s as it should be.
However, the problem becomes that Malone is a NYPD cop who wants everyone to know that his balls are bigger than anybody else. When he gets into tight spots where those balls are being squeezed his reactions are always to push back hard, and since he’s as much a criminal as anyone he ever arrested all of this starts to come out as blustery rationalizations. So it’s a whole lot of the things a dirty cop is going throw out as reasons why it’s all bullshit. “I’m out there on the street risking my life like a real cop! The real crooks here are the politicians and the judges and the lawyers and the real estate swindlers. They’re the ones who are really corrupt!”
Again, that’s as it should be, and it’s a natural reaction for this type of character. In the context of the story it’s also true. The issue becomes that it just goes on and on. And then on some more. Since it’s told in such a bombastic in-your-face fashion it gets annoying. Winslow commits so hard to making Malone the biggest swinging dick in the room who refuses to admit defeat as well as responsibility for what he’s done for so long that I actively started to root against him after a while.
That’s not to say that I’m playing the old “But he’s not a likeable character!” card. He isn’t really, but he’s not supposed to be. Vic Mackey wasn’t ‘likeable’ in The Shield, but the show managed the tricky balance of alternately making him the hero and an appalling villain at times. However, at the end of the show’s run the story also had a definite moral judgement about him that was the culmination of the story. I think part of why this suffered in my opinion is that Winslow tries to play the same game by showing the good sides of Malone as a cop and person, but although he does lay a final verdict of a kind on Malone it feels half-hearted and weak.
This is because Winslow continues to make excuses for Malone until the end by carrying on with the storylines regarding the outside corruption so it seems like he tried to split the difference and make Malone both the bad guy and the victim. Which I can see to a certain extent. It is ridiculous to nail a cop to the wall for taking a free cup of coffee while a politician can collect huge campaign donations from business people he can help, and that's all perfectly legal. However, what Malone did goes way beyond taking a cup of coffee, and he was happy to go along with the corruption while it helped make him one of the most connected cops in the city so him crying and beating his chest about it when he gets his hand caught in the cookie jar just came across as self-serving garbage to me after a while.
A lot of my friends have read and loved this book, and I can see why. Winslow is a great crime writer and this is a helluva tale about a dirty cop with all kinds of action and shady deals in a corrupt city. There’s a lot to like, and maybe if I’d never seen an excellent morality tale about one dirty cop with The Shield or a grim portrayal of how corruption and bureaucracy can consume a city like The Wire I would have liked this more. As it is, I couldn’t help but thinking that I’ve heard this story a couple of times before, and I liked those versions better.
It’s certainly not a bad book, but it will be well down my Winslow rankings.
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