Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Cartel Wins The Dagger Award

I was shortlisted for the Dagger Award this year, so you'd think that I'd be bummed out I didn't win last night. I'm not. The winner was The Cartel which is a book I believe has raised the bar for crime fiction and that can only be a good thing. Really good crime writing is really good writing, period...Here's my review from last year which originally appeared in a slightly different form (no swearing and fewer histrionics) in the newspaper. My prediction at the end proved prescient...
Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog was one of the great American crime novels of the last twenty years. Indeed Winslow, Dan Woodrell and James Ellroy so raised the bar of American crime fiction in the early 2000's that every other writer in the genre has been struggling to keep up. You can't get away with weak prose and poor characterisation in US crime writing any more. (If you're a shitty prose writer and you don't care about your characters you should probably write literary fiction - they still tolerate that kind of thing over there.) 

The Power of the Dog told the story of Art Keller a DEA agent fighting the drug wars in the 1970s and 80s particularly in Mexico where he ran afoul of Adan Barrera, the dauphin of the Sinaloa Cartel. Bloody, violent, scary and brilliant The Power of the Dog was not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. But Winslow was not being deliberately sensationalist he was just telling it like it was. The Power of the Dog, like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand unpacks the foundation myths of America - the Republic was not founded and maintained by philosopher kings but by violent men fighting other violent men for land and power and money. 

The Cartel is the sequel to The Power of the Dog which again takes up Art Keller's story. Dog ended with Keller divorced and trying to live in anonymous motels as his various Mexican enemies tracked him down. He has been cut loose by the Feds and must survive on his wits and his dwindling financial resources. After Adan Barrera escapes from his prison and resumes his quest to be the patron of patrons of all the cartels in Mexico, Keller is recalled to the life by the DEA. 

The Cartel is a fictionalised account of what's really been happening in Mexico for the last decade and as such it is terrifying. We get to see the Narco wars between the cartels, the corruption of all branches of the Mexican army and police and finally the appearance of the good guys - the Mexican Marines and in particular their special forces unit the untouchable FES. The Cartel isn't so much a crime novel as a war novel and Keller and his comrades are soldiers in that war. If you don't like war novels this probably is not the book for you as there are some pretty strong scenes of combat and violence. My favourite part of the novel comes near the end when an old Mexican gentleman named Don Pedro defends his house against the Zeta Cartel, Straw Dogs style...

Keller's character - Catholic, half Mexican, smart, honourable, is brilliantly drawn as is the character of his nemesis the chilly, intelligent, cunning Adan Barrera. Winslow's women are written as well as his men and there are many extraordinarily brave women in the book who are based on real people; indeed The Cartel is a tribute of sorts to the incredibly courageous Dr Maria Santos Gorrostieta (right) who appears, thinly veiled, as Keller's love interest (and who was - in real life - tortured to death by the narcos). 

No novel is without its flaws and I'll admit that I became disheartened by all the murder, mayhem and mutilation in the final third of the novel. But that's part of the point of the book too. The war was relentless. And lest that put you off let me emphasise again, that The Cartel, like The Power of the Dog, is a crime masterpiece. It is being taken very seriously by serious reviewers (that cool image (top above right) is from the New Yorker review.) If there were any justice they'd be giving it the National Book Award or the Pulitzer and at the very least it should get the Edgar and the Dagger next year.