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‘The Force’ stays with you

By Elle Hardy
Don Winslow’s latest novel transcends the New York cop story clichés

Reading can be terrifying. Thumbing a beloved author’s next, or something so highly recommended that it can’t possibly meet expectations, the fear of what may be beyond the cover, or over the page, can be arresting. But above all, the Zeus of reading-fear is the cliché. Don Winslow’s latest crime novel, The Force (HarperCollins, $27.99), is a sum of clichés, and yet it is one of the most brilliant novels you will read this year.

Famed for his recent dyad on the Mexican drug wars, The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, Winslow gives us a New York cop story: racial tension in the melting pot; the violent, corrupt detective with the heart of gold; the token black colleague, only two months away from retirement; drug gangs divided by ethnicity; a unit of police calling itself Da Force (complete with the Star Wars jokes); sex, drugs and jazz. It’s all there on paper to be terrible, but Winslow writes on tissue: delicate, layered, scented; the finest of its kind.

Da Force is led by Denny Malone, an (in)famous Irish-American detective in the New York Police Department, where “they give you a medal for being stupid, take your badge for being smart”. His beat is Harlem, and he calls himself the king. He and his crew live on a diet of uppers, occasional downers, free booze, free food and free women.

“The cops feel for the vics and hate the perps, but they can’t feel too much or they can’t do their jobs and they can’t hate too much or they’ll become the perps. So they develop a shell, a ‘we hate everybody’ attitude force field around themselves that everyone can feel from ten feet away,” we’re told early, a brash storytelling that keeps us turning. Literary snobbishness against crime writing is, if not already disproved, entirely dismantled, as Winslow’s proximity to his characters drives a giant of a novel with what the great literary critic James Wood calls “free indirect style”, where “we inhabit omniscience and partiality at once”.

Oh, how we do. The bad king is filled with the spirit of the good tsar. When he spots one young black kid, Marcus, who’s been beaten by his mother’s new boyfriend, he spills blood to try to help him, and her. “The boy’s face is swollen and purple, his bottom lip cut open as he asks for a turkey. Marcus’s mother, a fat lazy idiot, opens the door a crack and sees the gold shield. ” Women and children don’t get physically hurt in his lands, but drug dealers and wife beaters come to nonjudicial ends, weapons are for planting, and the loot is something to be divided between the boys and evidence room.

Da Force comprises pockmarked heroes, and yet it becomes harder and harder not to ride with them. But somehow, twisting around the story of corrupt cops getting done, The Force is a work of its time, impeccably researched, navigating an American terroir of rampant police violence and a wider culture that seems unwilling to make it stop. Black Lives Matter is very much in the room as Malone beats up an acquaintance of the dark, saying foot on neck, “there ain’t no police brutality if the cameras aren’t running”.

Winslow is too good, however, to make this just a political plaything (and he’s not exactly declaring his side). The Force is a story of a man, crumbling, trapped, a victim of a world he felt he created but comes to realise he is only a part of. As the noose of the law tightens, we’re brought into the lore of the soul, a rolling Catholic confessional of the bad king wanting to be good, if not for earthly forces. The humid question sits suspended: who is Judas?

“We’re all corrupt. Just each in our own way,” Malone tells us, soul of souls. Tightening still, “It’s like you light a match, you don’t think it’s going to do any harm. Then the wind comes up and changes and it becomes a fire that burns down everything you love.”

Malone’s love, however corrupt and unjust, is his kingdom. Staten Island is his biography, North Manhattan is his world, and, more importantly, his only real home. As the city tears itself apart in line with Da Force – or is it the other way around – Winslow’s writerly command emerges. After wrapping all those clichés in superb prose, Winslow hits on the subtle but broad arch of the story: the rule of gentrification.

There’s a theory in black activist circles (emerging from Harlem, where the book is set) that the increase in gang raids and conflict between young black men and police is all about gentrification, about claim to the inner cities as developers move in. As one of Malone’s interlocutors says, “You know the best thing about these riots? They burn down things you wanted taken down anyway—slum buildings, dirty bodegas, shabby bars. Then you buy low, build nice things and sell high.”

As much a conspiracy as a culture, young property moguls such as Jared Kushner buy struggling liberal rags such as New York’s the Observer, which in turn spout the latest places to be in formerly “no-go” areas – like Malone’s patch – and the media have little interest in pursuing the systematic brutalising and shooting of unarmed people after the blood has dried. Local media outlets have a habit of reporting the unarmed person’s history, or a street’s problems, from impeccably placed but hidden sources, as though the cop pulling the trigger knew that the kid had once smoked weed; they deserve it because they are like that.

That Winslow gets this is why The Force is so good; a gentle nod to a zeitgeist few have wished to examine. Steeped in the world of bent humans and ironed money, the story carries its own weight, while place and time carry its words. To label something authentic is its own contradiction, but this story is far more real than the Kindle you tap to turn the page. When the plot stretches its limit, when the body count would see George RR Martin surrender, Winslow manages to reel us back in with a superb, time-bending fourth act, planting a fresh line of affection and reinvigorating the story.

And it has to be said, that between the blood and guts and souls and bodies, The Force is funny. Really funny. The anecdotes Da Force tells the new kid, Levin, that draw us into its world, are pages-long hilarious, the kind of thing that makes you want to pick your pen up and put it down at the same time. Writing still has a place in our world and in Malone’s world, because the spoken word, we come to see, is more powerful than anything visual.

This is why reading can be terrifying. If anyone had described this book to me, I’d never have read it. And yet not only is it everything you want in literature – characters, dialogue, plot – but it draws on its genre, of time and place and pace, peeling your eyes open in the darkness as you take one more hit. The moral dimension, well, that’s just something that sits with you for weeks after reading.

There’s a very good reason the movie rights for The Force were sold before this book went into print, and there’s many more reasons why you should read it first.

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is an Australian journalist based in the United States. She can be found at www.ellehardy.com

@ellehardytweets

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