Don Winslow’s THE POWER OF THE DOG was a stark departure for this prolific crime author. Lacking the sly humor of his preceding stories, this dense 2005 novel was a somber, violent, and often heartbreaking depiction of the “War On Drugs” as seen mostly through the eyes of Art Keller, a DEA agent obsessed with bringing down the boss of the Mexican Drug Cartel and slowing the endless flow of drugs north into the U.S.
Ten years later the War drags on. So Winslow returns to this world with THE CARTEL, a sequel and ongoing look at the increasingly dangerous and duplicitous lives of high-level drug dealers and the law enforcement officers who continue to fight a War they know will never end.
By 2004, as the novel begins, El Federacion, the most powerful drug organization in the world, has splintered into several competing cartels operating throughout Mexico. Adan Barrera, the patron of El Federacion, is in solitary confinement in a San Diego prison. Then Barrera negotiates a deal that allows him to serve out his time in a Mexico prison. No sooner does Barrera arrive in his new cell than he initiates the orders launching a civil war between the various cartels throughout the country in an effort to reunite them under his command again.
Meanwhile Art Keller, the DEA agent who captured Barrera, is living a quiet and secret life in a New Mexico monastery. But when news of Barrera’s extradition reaches him, he knows he must leave his cloistered life, return to the storm of his former career and again try to bring down Barrera.
But the brutal murders, a trademark of the cartels, are not the only things standing in Keller’s way. The huge amounts of drug money have created a trail of corruption that goes deeper and higher than Keller could ever imagine. He not only fears for his life, but also faces the devastating realization that he could be fighting this War by himself.
While maintaining the melancholy tone of the preceding novel, Winslow makes every effort to provide the back-stories of most of the characters. This not only gives us greater insight into the players but also provides the few moments of levity and brightness in an otherwise dark story.
Art Keller remains the central focus of the narrative, but Winslow occasionally leaves Keller’s perspective and relays many events through the eyes of other characters – such as the chapters detailing Barrera’s overthrow of the drug lords in Juarez as witnessed by a local news journalist. It’s slightly confusing at first, until you realize that the events described often take place simultaneously throughout the entire Mexican nation. Winslow knows that the best way to convey these events, as well as their full emotional impact, is through those witnessing the events as they occur.
Also impressive is how Winslow avoids the polemic and remains steadfast with his duties as a storyteller. Yet he successfully expresses the bitter realities of the War On Drugs as experienced first-hand through his characters. They know – be they drug lords or law enforcers — that as long as Americans enjoy using and become increasing addicted to drugs, the demand remains and increases. Mexico has the ability to produce and provide these drugs, and the money it provides is often the only tangible escape from a life of poverty. It’s a seemingly endless and overwhelming cycle that allows for, at best, only temporary and short-lived victories for the likes of Keller.
At nearly 600 pages THE CARTEL is a challenging (and, as recent events have shown, a frighteningly prophetic) book, requiring more than a casual commitment from readers. But the massive sweep of the events and their life-altering impact upon each of the characters is what carries us through this long and exhausting tale.
While undeniably a sequel, THE CARTEL also stands solidly as a stand-alone novel. Like THE POWER OF THE DOG it is essential reading that, through fiction, provides the many human faces behind the news media reports on the drug war.
Along the way it also reconfirms Don Winslow as one of the most authoritative, versatile, and compelling crime fiction authors working today. —Alan Cranis