Monday, May 22, 2017

THE CARTEL by Don Winslow

The Cartel picks up years after the final events in Winslow's drug war chronicle The Power of the Dog. And if you thought Dog was epic, wait till you get a load of this one. In a culmination of their 30-year feud, cartel lord Adán Barrera and DEA legend Art Keller have both lost everything and are stuck in their own prisons. Adán is living large behind the bars of a Mexican prison that he turns into his personal headquarters, and Art is living in seclusion at a border monastery. But when Adán strolls out of prison set on making himself El Patrón again, Art knows that he's the only one capable of bringing him down. But while both men are set on destroying one another, neither of them is prepared to face the cruel and sadistic ways that the drug war has evolved.
When the devil comes, he comes on angel's wings.
This sequel is basically the Godfather Part II or Empire Strikes Back of Winslow's Cartel trilogy. It's bigger, badder, darker, and more violent. I loved picking up again with these two main characters and found it fascinating to see them struggle with this ferociously brutal evolution of the drug war and the fact that they both had a hand in creating it. But the stand-out in this book is the vast supporting cast of scene-stealing characters, such as my favorite, the rational and pragmatic rising drug lord "Crazy" Eddie Ruiz, the tragic child killer Chuy (who's introductory chapter is one of the book's best), or the Juárez reporter Pablo Mora. Each of the rich supporting characters gives us a lens from which to view a particular aspect of this complicated war that affects so many parts of Mexican life and really provides the heart of the story. But the story's backbone is the Keller/Barrera feud, and here, as they each separately try to get a handle on the worsening violence, they still circle one another as their mutual hatred grows, and you get the sense that it can only possibly end with one of them dead.
At the end of the day or the end of the world, there are no separate souls. We will go to heaven or we will go to hell, but we will go together. 
The graphic violence is ratcheted up here, especially with Winslow's inclusion of the rise of the real-life Los Zetas organization, responsible for much of the brutal terror in the past decade in Mexico. It's a bit hard to read at times, and unbelievable, but some quick internet research or at least a passing interest in Mexican news will let you know the harsh truth that Winslow's depictions are not only plausible but actually based on real events. Just google Los Zetas, El Chapo, and recently, Javier Valdez. The timeliness and the authenticity makes the whole thing pretty gripping, and the action culminates in a masterful, climactic, jungle set-piece that kept my eyes glued to the page for the last 50 pages of the book.

If you like sweeping crime epics, these books are must-reads! And the best news of all is that Winslow is finishing the work on the last Cartel book, and I'm definitely pumped to read it!
They say that love conquers all. They're wrong, Keller thinks. Hate conquers all. It even conquers hate.



  1. Thanks, Richard. I read The Power of the Dog at your recommendation, then went on to finish The Cartel a week or so ago. Winslow is a great writer. At times he's a real prose stylist, albeit without getting too pretentious – without forgetting the fundamentals of story and intrigue.

    That said, for me TPOTD is the better novel. There's a tighter fictional narrative around the characters; it builds through crosses and double-crosses to an amazing finale.

    Meanwhile, a few things felt a little off with The Cartel, for example (**Spoilers follow**):

    *Why on earth doesn't Keller put protection around "M" BEFORE the shooting? Made no sense to me – she was obviously in danger.
    *Why doesn't Keller even think of a certain important character from the first half of the book ("A") when he makes his deal with Berrera? Seems like an ommission, given that Berrera had "A" killed.
    *I found it infuriating when "P" refused to confide in anyone and only called Keller too late. His fate seemed more needless than tragic.

    Not that I should complain. I'll be trying Savages soon, and can't wait for The Force.

    Thanks again!!!!

  2. I definitely agree that The Power of the Dog had the tighter narrative!

    Yep, I also can't wait for The Force. That one looks great.


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