Review: The Power of the Dog

This novel is probably the grittiest I have read. I mean ‘grittiest’ in the sense of terse, violent and gripping. In 541 pages, Don Winslow sets out a compelling picture of the drugs wars in the America from New York City to Columbia. Nothing is withheld, abbreviated or glossed-over: the actions, reactions and motivations of dozens of very real characters. The scope of the novel draws in not only the drugs lords, the law enforcers and their subordinates on many levels, but also the politicians, and the military, so that, ultimately, it is not just about drugs, but also about perceived national interest and long term political strategy. One has to admire the depth of research Winslow must have completed to write this novel. The details of places, organisations, and procedures are all there with crystal clarity. One is tempted to believe that this is not a novel, but a description of the real world.


Don Winslow

The characterisations are excellent. There are about six characters who make it all the way through the book, and dozens more who fall (or are pushed) by the wayside. Each of the characters is distinct, and none is completely repellent: we understand their motivation even if it is just survival. The dialogue is terse, but fit for purpose.

One challenge for a reader of this novel is being able to connect the threads of location, character and motivation, as the story skips around from place to place. But Winslow is not trying to tell a simple story, and his skipping about technique reinforces the overall message: this game is very complex.

I found the book hard to put down, but when I did, I looked forward to finding out ‘what happens next’.

Winslow’s style of writing is not ‘literary’. This is not a work of literary art; it is a fast-moving story told in the street language of the characters themselves.

This book is not a pleasant read: the casual violence can be gut-wrenching, but if you are a reader with a strong stomach, and a love of realistic, complex and, ultimately, important action, this is the book for you.

A Learning Experience

As a writer, I have found it very helpful to read the work of other authors. One discovers techniques and approaches which can be very effective. My latest experience in learning from others involves not my own reading, but my wife’s reading. She has been reading a series of novels in Italian by Elena Ferrante (a pen name). She said the first in the series is extremely good; it concerns two young girls with very different personalities growing up in the 1940’s. She said the remarkable aspect of the novel is that nothing extraordinary happens, but that the writing was so good that it was captivating.

I got to thinking. How could this be? Then I realised that it wasn’t the content but rather the characters’ reactions to the content that was important. In other words, the novel constantly explored the characters’ emotions and reactions to events which, in and of themselves, were ordinary, but the emotions and reactions painted a vivid picture of the character.

I am reading a novel by Sebastian Faulks which makes frequent pauses to describe the principal character’s inner reactions to events, or to describe a relevant snippet of his history. Faulks and Ferrante are using similar techniques.

It occurred to me that, having started out as a story-teller and a writer of thrillers, I have a tendency to keep the action moving. My dialogue is crisp and to the point. The words express what the characters are feeling and they imply values. But this approach misses a dimension of richness by not pausing to see the characters more completely in their history, their personality and their values.

I am about 75% of the way through a new novel, and I’ve decided to continue with brief diversions on the characters’ feelings, history and values. But these diversions have to be succinct, relevant, and truly interesting – perhaps unexpected. My further intention is to review the 75% which is ‘completed’ and add similar passages.

Booker Prize winner

This isn’t about who I think will win this year’s Booker Prize, but about a man who thinks he knows who will win and who won money last year on thirteen bets that The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan would win.

An article in The Daily Telegraph begins: “A mystery punter who correctly predicted the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize using a formula based on ‘Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning’ is at it again, this time staking his money on Sunjeev Sahota.  The man, who goes by the name of ‘Mr Smith’, has visited a string of betting shops in and around Darlington, Co Durham, and placed the maximum stake on the British author’s novel The Year of the Runaways.  Ladbrokes has reacted by cutting Sahota’s odds from 10/1 to 5/2, because ‘Mr Smith’ has form: his successful thirteen bets last year.

“The man, described as middle-aged, well-spoken and fair haired, later rang a local newspaper to disclose his methods – and the fact that he had not read any book on the shortlist.  After reading online reviews of the books he picked the winner by studying Wikipedia biographies of the judges and working out which novels they would favour.  ‘I never read any of the books because, quite frankly, fiction is not my thing,’ he told the Northern Echo last year.  ‘I had, therefore, to spend much more time reviewing the judges than the actual books themselves.  I did a case study of each judge, using Wikipedia and YouTube, and read as much as I could about the books they had written, their interests, their politics and religious beliefs and then, through a process of Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning, tried to intuit which books they would go for.’

“His worry that female judges would not like a war story – Flanagan’s novel was about a survivor of Burma’s ‘Death Railway’ – was assuaged by the fact it ‘had a love affair inserted into it that I guessed would keep the female judges from recoiling in horror at some of the gruesome aspects of the book.’  This year, he believes the six judges will settle on The Year of the Runaways, a tale  of Indian immigrants struggling to make a life for themselves in Sheffield.  The string of bets, made in shops in the Darlington area and backed up by online betting, puts Sahota’s book second only to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life in the Ladbrokes odds.

If you fancy taking a punt, better make it today.  The winner will be announced tomorrow.

As we now know the winner is A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.  Let’s hope ‘Mr Smith’ didn’t ‘bet the ranch’ on Year of the Runaways.  2015 wasn’t the year to bet on the Ladbrokes favorites.

Review: Dark Waters

A friend of mine who is aware of my US Navy background, gave me a copy of Dark Waters, An Insider’s account of the NR-1, the Cold War’s Undercover Nuclear Sub. The authors are Lee Vyborny, who was a member of the NR-1 crew and Don Davis, a news correspondent.

I was interested, not because I served in submarines – I didn’t – but because I spent four years in destroyers whose mission it was to destroy enemy submarines. There were plenty of exercises during which we practiced hunting and killing submarines. One particular exercise comes to mind: my ship had just finished a refit in the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard and was sent to Guantanamo Bay for training exercises. One of our new weapon systems was AsRoc, an anti-submarine missile system which could be armed with either a state-of-the-art torpedo or a nuclear depth charge. We were also fitted with an advanced sonar system. Our first exercise one morning was to hunt down and ‘destroy’ a US Navy submarine which was playing ‘the enemy’. As soon as we were clear of the harbour, our sonar picked up the submarine at a distance of 10,000 yards (five miles). The captain sent the submarine an underwater telephone message telling them that the exercise had begun. Immediately, he fired an AsRoc with a dummy torpedo. The missile took off with a tremendous roar and splashed down within 200 yards of the submarine. The torpedo detached from the missile, energised its sonar, discovered the submarine, and ran toward it, hitting the submarine’ hull with a clang.

Dark Waters tells the story of the creation of NR-1 and its subsequent use.   The motivations for designing an autonomous, deep-diving submarine were multiple. The loss of the USS Thresher with its entire crew in an accident in the North Atlantic suggested the need for a deep rescue vehicle. The deep-diving vehicles which existed in the mid 60’s were either limited in their depth capability or were tied to a surface vessel. There was also an accident involving a B-52 bomber in which a nuclear weapon was dropped into the Atlantic off the coast of Spain. How to find it in deep water? And then there were almost endless possibilities for snooping on the Soviets.

Admiral Rickover was given responsibility for the Deep Submergence Systems Project. I had an interview with the admiral in 1964 in his rather scruffy office in Washington. He was assisted by the captain of the first nuclear aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, who was in dress white uniform; the admiral was in casual civilian clothes. “Why did you have so many D’s in college?” the interview began.”

“I don’t recall that I did, sir.”

“You did. Why?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Are you stupid or are you lazy?”

“I must be lazy, sir.”

“How can you afford to be lazy? Is your father a millionaire?”

“No, sir.”

“Lieutenant, let me ask you a question. Suppose your wife served a pie that was absolutely awful. What would you do?”

“Well, sir, I wouldn’t say anything and she would ask about it.”

“That may work for you, lieutenant, but let me tell you the correct answer. You should pick the pie up, throw it on the floor and say, ‘this pies isn’t fit for the dogs. Get another baker!”

I received orders to go to the nuclear submarine training school, but I resigned from the Navy.

I can say that the authors paint a very accurate picture of the man who was dogged, insensitive, brilliant and highly effective in achieving his vision. I certainly enjoyed reading more of his episodes of shameful manipulation!

The NR-1, being nuclear powered has a theoretically unlimited range submerged; it is, however, underpowered, which limits its speed to about six knots and makes it somewhat vulnerable to rough seas when surfaced. It is small: about 250 tons, 130 feet long, 13 feet in diameter, with a crew of about a dozen.



The book covers the selection and training of the crew, what life was like on board and some of the assignment which NR-1 was given. One of the assignments, for example, was the recovery of a US Navy F-14 jet fighter and its highly classified air to air missile. Both were lost in a launch accident off the west coast of Ireland. The recovery was severely complicated by the presence of the Soviet navy which also wanted to make the recovery. Its classified missions (and there must have been some of them) are not discussed. One point which stands out for me is the many mishaps that befell NR-1. In fact, the authors say: “Few ships in naval history would have as many close calls, repeatedly, over many years, than its smallest nuclear-powered submarine.” I often wondered, when reading: couldn’t that problem have been eliminated by design?

The book is certainly well-written: the technology is understandable, the human interactions are revealed with particular skill, and the pace of the story is about right. I felt that there was not enough ‘meat on the bones’: the most exciting episodes involved malfunctions of NR-1 rather than espionage derring-do. (Probably because the Navy wouldn’t grant permission for those episodes to be published.) Having said that, for those who have in interest in submarines, it is recommended reading.