By W. Perry Hall/contributing writer
He who “fights monsters,” Nietzsche warned, “should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” As Don Winslow’s novel “The Force” opens, NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is being held in a federal lockup, accused of being a “dirty cop,” one who gazed so long into the abyss that it now gazes back into him.
Malone is the de facto leader of NYPD’s most elite crime-fighting unit, the Manhattan North Special Task Force, whose mission is to rid Washington Heights and the more gentrified Harlem of drugs and guns. Dubbed “king of Manhattan North,” Malone wears the crown proudly. Somewhere on the path from his beginning as a young beat cop from Staten Island — son of a hero Irish cop — Malone lost perspective, became greedy and self-serving, and forgot what it means to be a guardian of his community.
The novel brings readers up to Malone’s current incarceration via flashbacks into his career, routine, snitches, the brotherhood of partners and his moral fall from grace. Though one might complain that the background is overlong, I found it fascinating. Winslow spent years researching the NYPD culture and interviewing street cops, veteran detectives and high-ranking police bureaucrats for this novel, which he has suffused with tales he gathered from the home and street lives of New York’s finest. He dedicates the book to law enforcement employees murdered in the line of duty over the time he was writing “The Force” — and the list covers nearly three pages.
Winslow describes the “love-hate relationship” between cops and the community: “The cops feel for the vic’s 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 forcefield around themselves that everyone can feel from ten feet away. You gotta have it, Malone knows, or this job kills you, physically or psychologically or both.”
Malone developed an interesting take on The New York Times’ declaration of a heroin epidemic: “It’s only an epidemic, of course, because now white people are dying.” He goes on to explain how whites started getting hooked on opioids prescribed by their physicians, who stopped prescribing for fear of this very addiction.
So white folks went to the open market and opioids became a high-priced street drug. Meanwhile, the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel made an executive decision to undercut U.S. pharmaceutical companies by increasing production, thus lowering prices, of an easier-made form of heroin more potent than opioids.
Addicted white Americans, finding this black-tar heroin cheaper and stronger than Lortab, Norco, Vicodin, Oxycontin and the like, began shooting up, overdosing and, many times, dying. “Malone literally saw it happening. He and his team busted more bridge-and-tunnel junkies, suburban housewives and upper Eastside madonnas than they could count.”
Winslow provides a closer look at the dark culture of the NYPD, such as the hatred and respect cops have for top criminal defense attorneys, the practice of “testilying” for the “greater good,” how jails function as de facto hospitals and detox centers, and cops’ relationship with reporters: “You trust a reporter like you trust a dog. You got a bone in your hand, you’re feeding him, you’re good. Your hand is empty, don’t turn your back. You either feed the media or it eats you.” As for “suits who love their numbers,” Malone calls them a “new management breed of cops” like “the sabermetrics baseball people [who] believe the numbers say it all, and when the numbers don’t say what they want them to, they massage them like Koreans on Eighth Avenue until they get a happy ending.”
In Malone, Winslow has created a multifaceted anti-hero you will care about as a “father loves a wayward son,” and who, toward the denouement, you might find yourself pulling for as the noble savage in a system permeated by corruption and duplicity. This sweeping Shakespearean tragedy of character and moral order tracks the downward spiral of a talented and decorated police detective who goes bad “step by step.” It’s a tale played out down the dark alleys of Manhattan North among warring clans ruled by corrupt kings, fighting over turf, fortunes and modern-day artillery, as all of New York City is torqued into a racial tinderbox while awaiting a grand jury’s ruling on a white cop killing an unarmed black kid.
If you’ve not heard of Don Winslow, you will soon. He writes highly suspenseful and realistic crime fiction, his novels so timely they are nearly prescient. Winslow is the best-selling author of “The Cartel,” a 2015 epic about narco warfare in Mexico. Last September — nine months prior to the June 19 publication of “The Force” — 20th Century Fox gave him a seven-figure deal for the film rights, a film Ridley Scott will produce and may direct. Fox and Scott already have “The Cartel” in pre-production.
Winslow builds up friction by showing how Malone crossed the line incrementally over the years: shaking down criminals, accepting favors, taking cuts, administering vigilante justice on his own and as favors, and acting as go-between for criminal defense attorneys and venal ADAs. What put him in the incinerator, though, was the biggest heroin bust in the city’s history, which would have been twice as large had he and his partners not taken half the cash and product; this and the fact that Malone executed the drug kingpin as a vendetta for his gang’s murdering a snitch’s wife and kids.
Malone is painfully aware he is corrupt. He is wracked with guilt over leaving his wife and three kids in Staten Island, while feeling like how he’s the worst thing in the world for his beautiful black girlfriend, given her addiction to heroin. And yet, he simply cannot stop; it’s not just his greed but his arrogance: “You need the money, the cash flow,” he tells himself, “but it’s more than that, admit it. You love the game. The thrill, the taking off the bad guys, even the danger, the idea that you might get caught.” To cope with the stress of the job and his internal moral turmoil, Malone partakes of dexedrine, booze, hash and veneries.
The feds have him and his only way out is informing on those higher up in the chain. Malone also faces betraying his partners, something he swore he’d never do — that is, until the feds told him if he didn’t they would put his wife in jail, take away his house and leave his kids without parents or a home.
The pressure on Malone ignites as he finds himself attacked from all sides: his by-the-book captain, internal affairs, federal investigators, the U.S. Attorney, the Harlem gangs, his partners who suspect he might be betraying them, the mob (for which he does favors), other cops who think he is a rat, the police commissioner and a mayor’s office afraid he knows too much, not to mention Malone’s own personal demons.
Ultimately, the novel is an indictment of a bedlam system rife with corruption, graft and favors for the penthouse set, giving color to the phrase, “the fish always stinks from the head downwards.”
In the lead-up to the oddly satisfying, cinematic denouement, Winslow ratchets up the racial tension as Malone faces a defining choice that could touch off “the fire this time”: whether he is still a real cop who will act as protector of the residents of Manhattan North, or a former cop who chooses to avoid penance for his crimes because he’s made a deal with the powers that be to help hide a high crime.
Winslow takes the reader into a concrete world of gangs and guns, the darkness of NYPD culture and a racially combustible city set to ignite. Told to the rhythmic beat of the NYC cop vernacular, this epic boils with vicious battles, blood-soaked hands holding dying cops and double-crosses by rat bastards to brew up an atmosphere in which, as in Macbeth’s Scotland, “foul is fair and fair is foul.”
In short, “The Force” is an instant classic.
William Morrow, 2017