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.
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.