Book Review: The Force by Don Winslow

The Force by Don Winslow
The Force
by Don Winslow
William Morrow, 2017

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a novel recommended to me more highly, more insistently, by more people, than The Force by Don Winslow.

More than one person has told me it’s the best book of the year. More than one has told me it’s the best cop novel ever written. Promo materials claim it’s nothing less than The Godfather of cop novels.

I’ve never been interested in gritty cop novels but I was eager to read this one. My conclusion, in a nutshell:

Yeah, it’s that good.

Denny Malone is the King of Manhattan North, a hero cop responsible for one of the biggest heroin busts in the city’s history, and the unofficial leader in the Manhattan North Task Force division of the New York City Police Department, affectionately known as “Da Force”. Members of “da Force” are respected and feared throughout the city, known to every dealer and drug kingpin, on a first name basis with the most important members of the mob, as likely to work with criminals as against them. They conduct drug and weapons busts, roust neighborhoods, pay off their informants, take bribes, fix trials, live large. They eat at the best restaurants for free, do the best drugs, keep girlfriends separate from their wives, and sleep with the best whores.

But they have a code, their own brand of honor, and they keep the criminals at bay as best they can. They hold the line between the criminal world and the world the rest of us live in.

These are the corrupt men and women tasked with protecting the law abiding citizens of the city.

Rarely have I read a book that involves me so deeply in the characters, that embeds me so completely in their world. Rarely have I read a book that makes me care about them, not despite their flaws but because of them, that shows me so well how human beings are a potent mixture of good and bad, admirable and reprehensible, giving and selfish, caring and cruel, loyal and liars.

This is a book that dwells in the misty gray area between idealized extremes, where such concepts are a myth, and reality demands compromise at every turn.

Winslow spent years researching this book: interviewing New York City police officers, riding along with them, learning their reality. At this point in time, he may very well be a leading expert on the culture, values, and day-to-day life of the NYPD.

All of that expertise comes together in these pages. The world rendered here, and the people who live in it—cops and criminals and citizens alike—are utterly, easily believable. This is a world you can smell, hear, touch, and feel in every gory detail.

This is a brutal and shockingly violent world. Winslow never flinches from any of it.

This is a world of deep corruption, every man for himself, where even good cops get twisted. Winslow shines a light into every nook of it.

But it’s a world of day-to-day routine, too. A world where corruption sneaks in step-by-step, without any grand moments of arrival, and lines get crossed without anyone noticing. A world where cops can’t make enough money or difference to justify what’s asked of them, and criminals make far too much of both. A world where the difference between cop and criminal is blurred beyond recognition. Cops and criminals share the same streets and the streets shape them both.

What elevates this novel, what makes it important, is the recognition of how this immersive, distorting world fits into our larger social and cultural reality: racism, economic inequality, cultural inertia, a justice system bought and paid for, Black Lives Matter, the militarization of police forces, the toxic relationship between the police and the people they’re supposed to protect and serve. The hypocrisy of the people in power who expect police to crack down on crime but don’t want to see what it really takes to be effective.

This is resonant social analysis disguised as a thriller novel.

And it is thrilling. Winslow achieves an impressive balancing act: on the one hand, he wants the book to be a thriller. On the other hand, he wants it to be a deep-dive character study. These two goals require different pacing, different tone, different storytelling structure.

He marries the two using one of the oldest tricks in the writer’s arsenal: the flashback. The way he deploys it feels like a classic, rather than a cliché.

He starts the story with the main character in jail. The rest of the novel is a flashback to show us how he got there. This structure is so simple, but it gives Winslow the freedom to indulge in all the character development he wants, all the detailed exploration of this world, without sacrificing suspense. The reader is left wondering when and how Denny is going to get caught. There are several moments throughout when you think, “This is it, this is when he gets taken down,” only to see him dodge his way out.

The thrill comes from the way Winslow teases us as the danger to Denny mounts, as his paranoia grows.

Once Denny does get caught, then it becomes a question of what happens next: how will he get out of it this time?

It’s at this point that the book stumbles.

The problem for me—the single thing that detracts from the complete success of this novel—is the ending, from the last major plot twist through the last page. Everything about this book feels real, brutal and believable, but the end reads like fiction.

Winslow lays the groundwork earlier in the book for the final plot twist but it still comes off too much like a deus ex machina for me to buy it. There’s one scene which, as far as I can tell, only exists to provide an excuse for Denny to deliver a page-long, moralizing speech—and while everything he says is correct and just, it also feels out of character. This speech is clearly the author talking, and not the character, stating all the hard truths that he feels need to be said.

It’s a triumphant and powerful speech. But it doesn’t belong there.

My biggest complaint about the ending is that it resolves things too neatly. For a book grounded so deeply in realism, this rings false. The real world doesn’t wrap things up like this.

I understand that people want wrapped up endings, endings which offer some form of redemption and closure. This isn’t a book to read if you’re looking for wish-fulfillment. It’s far too unflinching for that.

But the ending flinches. It’s too much like a fantasy of how someone would want it to end. I think the work would have been better served if it had left things unresolved and unsatisfied. That would have been more believable.

That being said, the final section of the novel contains the most powerful writing in the entire work. The language and imagery of it are stunning. These last several pages are a breathtaking joy to read.

It’s a profound tonal shift from the rest of the book. As wondrous as the writing is at the end, it feels disconnected from the writing that precedes it. Gorgeous, but another way the ending doesn’t fit.

The Force is a masterpiece. Aside from the flawed ending—which is substantially redeemed by the magnificent writing—it’s nearly perfect.

More importantly, it’s an essential work which provides critical perspective on one of the most pressing issues of our time: the spiraling relationship between the police and citizens.

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