THE UNWILLING by John Hart (to be published in June, 2020)

To begin I would like to thank the representative from St. Martin’s Press for contacting me and asking me to review John Hart’s latest novel, THE UNWILLING before publication.  I found the novel to be an exceptional read with an intricate storyline, interesting characters, and a series of themes that directly and indirectly touch a range of human emotions.  The book should measure up to Hart’s previous thrillers which have won numerous awards, particularly two consecutive Edgar Awards.

The evocative novel begins with the release of Jason French from prison after serving two and a half years that followed three tours of duty in Vietnam.  Jason has been linked to drugs, guns, and rumor has it he killed 29 people in the war and possibly two more while at Lanesworth State Prison.  Jason is a broken man who comes from a somewhat dysfunctional family with an older brother Robert, the family favorite killed at Ke Sanh, and a younger brother, Gibson or “Gibby” who idolizes his brothers but has been kept in a protective bubble by his parents, particularly by his mother who is still grieving the loss of her first son and shuns Jason.  William French, the father is a detective for the Charlotte Police Department and is doing his best to maintain some sort of normality and in the end save his family.  He loves his sons equally but was distraught over his inability to communicate with his middle son who he feels he no longer knows.  He and his wife try to keep Gibby away from his brother, creating further resentment driving them closer together.

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(Author, John Hart)

The powerful novel explores the depths of human depravity.  These depths are a function of many things, but foremost in Hart’s mind is the Vietnam War and how it affected Jason French and turned him into something his reflection in the mirror could never condone.  Further, the novel reflects a father who has lost one son and perhaps another because of the war and as the story progresses, he fears he is about to lose his youngest.

Hart’s plot in part pits two men who cannot overcome their demons.  One, called X is a wealthy psychopath scheduled to be executed in a few months.  X uses his wealth as a vehicle to dominate a corrupt prison on the inside and through his tentacle’s certain lives on the outside.  Second, Jason French, a man shattered by war and a family destroyed by the same war who does not recognize how deep his emotional issues are and how to obtain help.  While imprisoned Jason was manipulated by X and did something to him that wants revenge against him and his family.  He will arrange a murder that implicates Jason resulting in his return to prison and the control that X fosters.  Gibby believes his brother has been abandoned and tries to locate the killer and in doing so becomes caught in X’s web that caused the death of another woman that is linked to Gibby.

Hart has a very tight conversational writing style that allows him to tell the story mostly through Gibby as narrator.  He has the ability to drill down into the core of each character presenting their flaws and upside.  He knows exactly when to shift the focus from one character to another as the thriller evolves and allows his plot to play out maintaining a sharp focus on keeping the reader glued to the written page.  If I were to compare Hart’s work with another author, Pat Conroy comes to mind, but without the inherent southern prose as well as the intensity of Greg Iles.  Further, he has been compared to John Grisham and Scott Turow but for me he has taken the genre of crime fiction to a new level.  In the end the best way to describe John Hart’s writing is that he is a master storyteller.

PURGATORY RIDGE by William Kent Krueger

Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday's storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday’s storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

William Kent Krueger has written another exceptional thriller in his third Cork O’Conner novel, PURGATORY RIDGE with the main character seemingly having righted his marriage and filled the voids that emerged in previous mysteries.  As he has done in his other works, he has combined the beauty of nature in northern Minnesota, reservation life and economics, and of course a work of fiction that produces angst and fear.  Krueger is a master of novels that run on a number of tracks.  In the present iteration of Cork O’Conner, the conflict between lumber interests and environmentalists dominates.  Further, the death of a young man who drowned along with many others in a shipping accident on Lake Superior explains a great deal of what transpires.  The question that immediately comes to mind is how the plight of white pine trees  known as Our Grandfathers by local Native-Americans, the tragedy of the “Alfred M. Teasdale,” and an explosion at the Lindstrom Lumber Company all fit together.

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The puzzle that Krueger offers reflects the animosity between logging interests represented by Lindstrom Lumber and the actions of environmental groups in the courts, demonstrations, and at times violence.  In this instance the loggers are opposed by the “Army of the Earth,” and on another level the conflict involves the interest of those who make their living from the logging industry against those of the Anishinaabe Indians on the Iron Lake Reservation.

Krueger returns a number of important characters from previous novels one of which is Nancy Jo O’Conner, who is the lawyer  for the Anishinaabe Ojibwe in their fight against the loggers to save the white pine trees.  It appears that Aurora, the home of the O’Conner’s is on the eve of war and after the explosion at Lindstrom Lumber that killed Charlie Warren, the traditional chief of the Iron Ojibwe Indians, the death count has begun.  The conflict between “red” and “white” leaps off the pages and it is a continuation of the troubles that came to a head two years earlier over fishing rights that cost Cork O’Conner his job as sheriff.  Other returning characters include, Henry Merloux, the Anishinaabe medicine man who seems “all wise” and has known Cork his entire life.  Wally Shanno, the Tamarack County Sheriff,  Helmut Hanover, the editor of the Aurora Sentinel, whose nickname is “hell,”  and the O’Conner children and Aunt Rose.

New characters that take prominent roles include John Le Pere who was the only survivor aboard the “Alfred M. Teasdale” and witnessed the drowning of his brother Billy.  Wesley Bridger, a former Navy Seal who partners with Le Pere in trying to show negligence by the Fitzgerald Shipping Company and recover damages while explaining why the ship sank.  Joan Hamilton, an environmentalist known as “Joan of Arc of the Redwoods,” and her son Brent who belongs to the “Army of the Earth” who refer to themselves as Eco-Warriors.  Lastly, Grace Fitzgerald, author and poet who is married to Magnus Karl Lindstrom III the owner of Lindstrom Lumber whose father had been the owner of Fitzgerald shipping.

Le Pere’s grief is palatable and has shadowed his life for over fifteen years leading him to behavior that is the result of forces he cannot control when all he is seeking is justice.  The  O’Conner family will be dragged into the nastier aspect of the existing conflict resulting in the  family moving closer together.  Underlying family issues is whether Cork should run for reelection as Sheriff which Nancy Jo fears will rip apart the progress that has been made in restoring their relationship.  Krueger’s plot will come full circle before its conclusion that encompasses a number of flawed characters, but the prolonged tension of the story remains until the very end, an ending the reader will not be able to anticipate.  Krueger’s writing will not win any awards for fine prose, but it does maintain the reader’s interest throughout and does not disappoint as the Cork O’Conner series remains a hit.  The next installment is entitled, BLOOD HOLLOW.

 

BOUNDARY WATERS by William Kent Krueger

Welcome sign on south end of town, Aurora Minnesota, 2009

In BOUNDARY WATERS William Kent Krueger continues the saga of Cork O’Conner who still remains apart from his family with hopes of resurrecting his marriage.  The hurt that was present at the end of IRON LAKE has dimmed but it remains just below the surface.  Cork still lives in the back of a Quonset Hut, that doubles as a hamburger stand in season.  The second installment of the series opens with a woman hiding in the wilderness of northern Minnesota that is known as the Boundary Waters region where she hopes that her close friend Wendell Two Knives, a Anishinaabe Native-American will locate her and bring the supplies that are necessary as winter is not far behind.

The immediate question is what the woman called Shiloh is running from, who is chasing her, and for what reason.  The novel digs into the past and Shiloh’s birth is in question as is the death of her country music star mother Marais Grand.  What secrets are buried in the past as the murder took place fifteen years earlier and it seems to involve the role of the FBI, the California State Police and Attorney-General, and organized crime.  Grand had a checkered past with me and we spend a good part of the novel trying to determine who her father is.

“Fall Colors” – Northern lights over Boulder Lake near Duluth, Minnesota 
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The core of the novel is the search and rescue mission launched by Cork from Aurora to locate her and save her life.  In doing so a number of questionable characters emerge.  Supposedly the FBI has returned under the auspices of Booker T. Harris and two other agents.  The question is are they really acting for the Bureau or do they have a different agenda.  The California Attorney-General has a significant interest in finding Shiloh as does organized crime boss Vincent Benedetti.  As Krueger develops his story his keen sense of the dramatic and mystery dominate.  The wilds of northern Minnesota and its pitfalls are on full display as is Native-American myth and lore in the persons of Stormy Two Knives, and  his amazing son Louis.  Other important characters include Willie Raye better known as “Arkansas Wille, the head of Ozark Music and Charon/Milwaukee, a killer for hire who also possesses a modicum of a conscience.

The divide between law enforcement and the treatment of Native-Americans is clear by the interaction of the Two-Knives family and the supposed FBI agents.  Another common theme is the issue of Native-American casino ownership and the money it generates.  It is clear the new revenues for the Iron Lake Reservation have improved the quality of life for its people, but a dilemma is present as more and more strangers keep pushing near the reservation with gambling, vacation, and investment plans.

Krueger has a way of inducing the reader’s interest by the tight dialogue between characters that emits new information.  It appears as if the author is stringing the reader along but in doing so he keeps the reader totally immersed in the story, a story that keeps changing as the search for Shiloh continues.

Characters that appeared in IRON LAKE are present in this thriller.  Nancy Jo, Cork’s wife now feels tremendous guilt about her marriage.  Her sister Rose is present and keeps the family that includes five-year-old Steven, twelve-year-old Annie, and the teenage Jenny who is beginning to feel her oats.  Tamarack County Sheriff Wally Shanno, who replaced Cork in law enforcement a few years earlier is an important figure as is Anishinaabe medicine man Henry Merloux.

A number of murders occur as the story unfolds, some seem related to Shiloh’s disappearance, but others seem unrelated.  Questions abound as to what country music might have to do with the murders in addition to the death of Shiloh’s mother fifteen years earlier.  Krueger is a master of tying all of these loose ends together as he has followed his first Cork O’Conner thriller with another that is equally well done.  If you enjoy taut mysteries with a human touch Krueger’s latest work should be satisfying.  For me it is on to the third iteration, PURGATORY RIDGE.

Welcome sign, Aurora Minnesota, 2009

IRON LAKE by Willam Kent Krueger

One of the many snowmobile trails in Voyageur National Park in northern Minnesota // Photo via Voyagaire Lodge

(Northern Minnesota in Winter)

A few days ago, I was perusing the isles of one of my favorite bookstores and came across the works of William Kent Krueger.  I read a number of book jackets which piqued my interest in his main character Corcoran (“Cork”) O’Conner, the former sheriff of Tamarack County, MN.  Krueger has written seventeen novels involving “Cork” and I decided it would be best to start at the beginning with his first installment, IRON LAKE.  In thinking about Krueger’s work the names of James Lee Burke, Henning Mankell, and Craig Johnson all come to mind.

We are introduced to Cork’s family at the outset.  Three children, Jenny, a precocious fourteen-year-old, Steven, five years old, eleven-year-old Annie, and his wife Nancy Jo.  Cork is concerned about his children as he and Nancy Jo, a powerful lawyer in Aurora, MN have separated, and he is trying to keep the family together.  The core of the plot begins to unfold immediately as the local paper boy Paul LeBeau finds the body of Judge Robert Parrant in his home when delivering the daily paper after hearing an explosion.   Cork is contacted by Paul’s mother Darla as Paul has gone missing.  The problem is that Cork is no longer sheriff, but many townspeople turn to him when they have problems.

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(Author, William Kent Krueger)

In a town like Aurora, population 3752 this type of incident is rare and exceptionally disturbing.  For Cork, who is part Irish, and Anishinaabe Indian who was once a cop on the dangerous southside of Chicago horrible crimes are nothing new. The death of the judge and the missing boy will lead Cork on a path of discovery that will hit very close to home.  Darla believes her son has been kidnapped by her husband, Joe Johns who has experienced many bad breaks in the past and has turned to alcohol.

Krueger develops the backgrounds of his characters very slowly.  Once completed, the insights into each character, allows the reader to understand why people act as they do.  In the case of Cork, it goes back to the death of his father at the age of fourteen when Sam Winter Moon takes him under his wing.  Fast forwarding to the period when he was sheriff, we find ourselves in the midst of conflict between the Anishinaabe Indians and local resort owners on Iron Lake which falls in part on the Indian reservation.  During a demonstration dealing with control of the lake Cork is confronted by a demonstrator who he is forced to shoot leading to a recall election that costs Cork his job.  The recall was pushed by Judge Parrant.    Later Cork is haunted by the fact that he may have over reacted, but he is cleared of any wrongdoing.  Other background that Krueger provides deals with  the development of a casino on the reservation and other financial opportunities for the white community as well as Native-Americans.  Krueger does an exceptional job seamlessly integrating the past, which include Native-American myths, and questionable financial activities.

Krueger develops a fascinating group of characters that dominate the story.  Tom Griffin, a priest who is known for his ancient motorcycle and snowmobile has the nickname of “St. Kawasaki.”  Wanda Manydeeds is a tough woman who runs a shelter on the Iron Lake reservation and in the past was part of the American Indian Movement and is the sister of Joe Johns.  Sam Winter Moon, Cork’s father’s closest friend and is steeped in Native-American myth and culture.  Molly Nurmi, Cork’s friend and waitress at Johnny’s Pinewood Broiler.  Helmuth Hanover lost a leg in Vietnam and is a pugnacious newspaper editor at the Aurora Sentinel.  Sandy Parrant, the judge’s son, a developer, politician, and a man not to trust.  Henry Meloux, the Anishinaabe medicine man.  Wally Schanno, the new sheriff.  Harlan Lytton, an unstable man who lived in the woods with his dog Jack the Ripper.  There are other important characters particularly as they relate to the Minnesota Civilian Brigade, a militia that has its own agenda.

As the plot plays out Cork is confronted by a number of personal issues, and his life begins to deteriorate, but a number of murders recenters his outlook and he wonders why they all seem to lead back to him.  The murders appear disparate but the key to the novel is how Krueger ties them all together including old Native-American myths.

The book is an enjoyable read that captures the readers attention from the outset.  Krueger has the ability to draw emotional responses from the reader as they become immersed in each character.  For me it is obvious the respect that Krueger holds for Native-Americans and the landscape of Northern Minnesota which provides a wonderful setting for the novel.  Lastly, I was unable to put it down, and cannot wait to begin the second iteration of Cork O’Conner, BOUNDARY WATERS.

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(Rural Northern Minnesota)

THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA by Martin Cruz Smith

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A number of years ago novelist Martin Cruz Smith introduced readers to Moscow detective Arkady Renko in his landmark work, GORKY PARK.  Since that time Smith has developed the reputation as the premier practitioner of the Russian crime novel that includes POLAR STAR, STALIN’S GHOST, TATIANA, and WOLVES EAT DOGS.  Smith’s latest and ninth rendition of the Renko series is THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA which measures up nicely with his previous work, but it is a bit understated and does not rise to the level of intensity as a number of other works.

The story takes place mostly in the Siberian city of Chita and Lake Baikal as Renko is confronted with trying to keep his “girlfriend” journalist Tatiana Petrovna safe, carrying out the wishes of his boss, State Prosecutor Zurin, and untangling the machinations of Russian oligarchs, Mikhail Kuznetsov, referred to as “the hermit billionaire,” and Boris Benz.  Renko remains the irreverent character he has projected in other novels as he continues his humorous sarcasm amongst his constant wisecracks particularly targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian system of justice as is highlighted by the false arrest of Aba Makhmud, a Chechen falsely accused of trying to assassinate State Prosecutor Zurin.

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(Lake Baikal, Russia, the deepest lake in the world)

Smith provides the underside of Putin’s Moscow as oppressive policing, corruption, illegal wealth and other such issues are obvious to the reader.  The plot centers on Tatiana’s research and writing and Renko’s need to protect her.  Tatiana has traveled to Siberia covering a story centering Kuznetsov who is an idealistic oligarch (an oxymoron!) who has spent five years in prison after criticizing Putin and his cronies but is a candidate for president.  Tatiana is helping to edit a book Kuznetsov is writing, but the oligarch has a relationship with Boris Benz, a more traditional oligarch who is only out for himself and his money.  The problem is that as Victor, Renko’s partner points out “Tatiana is fatally attracted to dangerous stories, and you are attracted to her.  It makes for inevitable consequences.”

It is clear that both oligarchs have their own agendas and as usual in dealing with Russia it involves oil.  The question for Renko is that he does not know who he can trust as well as being inhibited by the fact he is in love with Tatiana.  As usual, as in other Renko novels he becomes flummoxed before he sharpens his perspective as the plot reaches a new level of suspense as the extraction of natural resources dominates.

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Smith introduces a number of new characters, chief among them is Rinchin Bolot who Renko met on the flight to Siberia.  Bolot describes himself as a “factotum,” or “a general servant,”  as well as a shaman.  Bolot will make himself indispensable to Renko and he seems to turn up at the most important parts of the story and Renko could not have survived without him.  Another interesting character is Saran, a pretty young lady who manages the Admiral Kolchak Hotel in Chita and will develop a warm relationship with Renko.

Smith’s 9th installment is a thriller by definition, but for most of the book is on a meandering path, and one wonders when the author will turn up the suspense a notch.  About two thirds of the way into the book he finally does, as Renko is attacked by a bear while at the same time there is an important assassination.  Aside from bears, Renko’s biggest problem is the box that Zurin has placed him.  Despite this uptick in suspense the story remains uneven.  But, despite this weakness Smith has written a fine novel that should not disappoint his readership – but then again it might.

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CEMETERY ROAD by Greg Iles

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(Bienville, MS)

Bienville, Mississippi is the site of Greg Iles latest novel.  Fresh off the success of his NATCHEZ BURNING trilogy, Iles’ latest effort CEMETERY ROAD describes a town of about 36,000 people which is about to further its recovery from the economic downturn in the early 1990s and the 2008 collapse as it appears a Chinese conglomerate is about to build a paper mill in town.  Azure Dragon Paper Company will provide numerous jobs, many high paying, in addition to a new interstate highway that will run from El Paso, Texas to Augusta, Georgia that will pass over a new Bienville bridge.  All seems to be positive until one individual, an archeologist named Buck Ferris is murdered.  It seems that Ferris has found evidence of an ancient Indian civilization at the site of the new factory complex and if his discoveries pan out then the area could be declared a UNESCO historical preserve thereby threatening Bienville’s economic future.

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When one begins a Greg Iles’ novel there are certain expectations.  In his latest effort they are all met.  An intense plot that delves into the characters past history, a crime that is hidden amongst many layers, the Mississippi landscape that encompasses the 1960s to the present, and a flawed protagonist, this case, Marshall McEwan, a newsman and commentator from Washington who returns home to Bienville.  McEwan is a brilliant reporter who carries a great deal of personal baggage ranging from guilt of his brother Adam’s drowning when he was fourteen, the death of his own son, also named Adam at two years old in a swimming pool, divorce, numerous affairs, and a dying father who still blames him for the death of his eldest son.  McEwan returns home to try and ease his mother’s burden with the approaching death of her husband, and possibly bringing to resolution the void in his relationship with his father.

McEwan takes over his father’s newspaper the Bienville Watchman and has written an article that the town’s elite, known as the Poker Club, find extremely uncomfortable as it explores Ferris’ work and findings and what it might signify.  Once Ferris, who helped McEwan deal with his brother’s death and became his surrogate father when his own father shut him out is murdered Iles’ begins to unpack a powerful plot that feeds numerous tributaries.

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(Greg Iles, author)

Ile’s is an expert at blending past relationships and the history of his characters with contemporary events. Ile’s talent also extends to his character development and how individuals interact as the story unfolds.  The author has created a number of interesting personages as events build upon each other.  The Matheson family, the powerful timber baron patriarch Max, and his son Paul who had saved McEwan’s life while both were in Iraq, who now suffers from PTSD.  Jet Matheson, Paul’s wife also happens to be McEwan’s lover, a rekindling of a relationship they began as teenagers.  Denny Allman, a fourteen-year-old technology “genius” who operates his own drone and has latched on to McEwan as a surrogate father when his own has abandoned him and his mother.  Nadine Sullivan, bookstore owner, lawyer, and longtime friend of McEwan’s. Byron Ellis, the Tenisaw County Coroner.   Members of the towns ruling cabal called the Poker Club, Tommy Russo, Casino owner; Wyatt Cash, Prime Shot Camping Gear owner; Claude Buckman founder of Bienville Sothern Bank; Blake Donnelly, oil baron; Arthur Pane, former county attorney; and Avery Sumner, former circuit judge and current US Senator.  This group is described as a “predatory banker, an old-time oil tycoon, a newly minted US senator, an entrepreneur with ties to the US military, and a sleazy lawyer,” all very accurate descriptions.

It seems that a number of characters face moral and ethical dilemmas as the story unfolds.  The situation revolves around the future of Bienville.  How should Jet Matheson divorce her husband and still keep custody of her son as she is up against the power of her father-in-law?  What should Matthew McEwan publish concerning the murder of Buck Ferris and the dirt surrounding members of the Poker Club?  After the murder or possible suicide of the spouse of a Poker Club member, how should the accused be defended in court and what are the ramifications of the case for the town?  How does one keep a family together when dark secrets rip it a part?  Lastly, how does one deal with corporate interest versus the needs of the local population?

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There is an important contemporary aspect to Iles’ approach.  He frames his dialogue well and uses it to inform the reader of important opinions that he holds.  His digression dealing with the state of the newspaper and media industry is important as he chronicles its decline as it now seems to only resort to entertainment and certain types of news anchors.  Further, he repeatedly skewers the Trump administration for its moral and ethical decay and voices his concern for the future because of the damage emanating from Washington.

Iles develops all of these concerns very carefully as he builds the tension as the diverse interests of his characters come into conflict.  The storyline will keep the reader riveted to their seats as they press on, and the final resolution of the issues raised will come as a surprise.  In reading Iles’ work from his NATCHEZ BURNING trilogy and now with CEMETERY ROAD I am reminded of the work of Pat Conroy.  In this new book Iles has delivered an absorbing novel that displays the grief, betrayal and corruption of a small southern town, a story that I highly recommend.

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METROPOLIS by Philip Kerr

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(Berlin, 1928)

Sadly, last March British author Philip Kerr passed away.  Kerr was a prolific writer of over thirty books, including works of adult fiction and non-fiction, in addition to writing children’s books under the name, P. B. Kerr.  At the time of his death he had just completed his last novel entitled, Metropolis, the last iteration of his successful Bernie Gunther series that dealt with German history from the 1920s through the Cold War.  Kerr, one of my favorite purveyors of historical fiction consistently laid out his view of Nazism, its effect on Germany, and how Germany navigated the Cold War through the eyes of Gunther.  METROPOLIS  is the 14th book in the  series and the reader has experienced the progression of Gunther from his time as a Berlin detective, a reluctant member of the Gestapo, and the course of his career in and out of law enforcement during World War II and the Cold War.

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(Reichstag Building, 1928)

The series is not presented in chronological order as we witness the rise of Nazism, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler, German’s defeat in World War II, and how Germany fits into the post war world.  Despite the lack of chronological continuity, Kerr makes it easy for the reader to follow German history through Gunther’s experiences.  It is interesting that the final volume is set in Weimar Berlin in 1928, a city that resembled Babylon which according to Gunther “was a byword for iniquity and the abominations of the earth, whatever they might be.”

Metropolis begins with Gunther’s promotion from the vice squad by Bernhard Weiss, Berlin’s Chief of Criminal  Police to a position on the Murder Commission.  A move that will change Gunther’s life in that from this point on everyone he meets has the capacity to commit murder and he must size them up.  The first case deals with the murder of three prostitutes by a serial killer nickname “Winnetou,”* and the investigation reflects the underside of what Berlin has become – a dichotomy of rich and mostly poor who will do anything to survive.  Kerr has an excellent command of history as he weaves events and personalities throughout the novel.  In this case, it is the stirring of the Nazis as a political party, worker unrest exacerbated by the Communist Party,  the inflation of 1923 and what it has done to the savings and daily cost of living for the people of Berlin.

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A major theme that permeates the story is the effect of World War I on the soldiers who survived the carnage of the trenches and the battlefield overall.  Today we refer to it as post-traumatic stress disorder, after WWI it was called shell shock for which over 80,000 German soldiers were under medical treatment in 1928.  For eugenicists of the period, Berlin was infested with crippled combat veterans who survived in their “cripple carts”, crutches, and severe pain.  They are paralyzed, suffer from anger issues, flashbacks, survival guilt, and as Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist who specializes in surviving extreme trauma has pointed out, deal with the loss of self as they try to cope each day.  For those living in Berlin in 1928 their lives offer a version of some sort of trauma daily; i.e., the violence pursued by Nazis and Communists, the lack of food, homeless in shelters, thousands living on the street, unemployment etc.

Kerr’s theme is carried forth as the Murder Commission learns of a series of murders of disabled veterans perpetrated by a man referred to as Dr. Gnadenschuss** by the press, who are killed by one bullet to the back of the head.  Some argue that the murderer is doing society a favor by doing away with the constant reminder that Germany lost the war.  For these eugenicists, the Weimar Republic must be cleansed for Germany to recover her strength, and the weak must be weeded out.  These views are accepted by many including Doctors, Konrad Biesalski and Hans Wurtz who administer the Oskar-Helene rehabitation facility for veterans whose ideas on medical care and social integration are at best, Neanderthal.

Philip Kerr, 62, Author of ‘Gunther’ Crime Novels, Is Dead

Philip Kerr at his home in London in 2016. At his death he left behind a Gunther manuscript titled “Metropolis.”CreditNina Subin/Putnam Books

The scars that have infected Gunther’s soul come to the fore throughout the novel.  As in other books in the series, Gunther’s daily existence is a battle in dealing with his past, the moral choices he makes, and what he has become.  Gunther’s sardonic and sarcastic commentary is a defense mechanism to cope with what ails him.  He is aware of what the war has done to him, but he is able to compensate for his feelings and thoughts through his firm belief in what he is accomplishing as an officer of the law living in Berlin under the aegis of the Weimar Republic, a seedy, sexy, and cosmopolitan edifice that is out of step with the growing fascist threat to the rest of the country.

Kerr pursues many strategies in conveying his material.  One approach stands out the best, the soliloquies that Gunther has with himself, particularly when he enters an imaginary conversation with Mathilde Luz, a young Jewish worker who was the first victim.  At the suggestion of Bernhard Wiess, Berlin’s Chief of Criminal Police, Gunther is encouraged to place himself in the shoes of the victim as a tool in solving the murder.

Taken as a whole METROPOLIS is detective story and a nasty murder mystery that will maintain the interest of the reader throughout.  It is a tale of vice and horror that works and lives up to the standards that Kerr has developed in his previous novels involving Detective Gunther.  As Adrian McKinty writes in The Guardian the book is “wonderfully plotted, with elegant prose, witty dialogue, homages to German Expressionism and a strong emotional charge, this is a bittersweet ending to a superb series.” (The Guardian, 4 April 2019)

*fictional Native-American hero from the novels of Karl May. The term means “burning water.”

**mercy bullet.

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THE BORDER by Don Winslow

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(The US-Mexico border)

After completing THE FORCE, the second installment of Don Winslow’s THE POWER OF THE DOG trilogy that encompasses the narco-drug world that resides in Mexico, but also a symbiotic relationship with areas of the United States, I looked forward to seeing how his fictional account with elements of fact would resolve itself.  The concluding volume, THE BORDER has just been released and it will not disappoint as it maintains Winslow’s breadth of knowledge of the purveyors of the drug trade, the intricacies of how it operates, the violent battles among the cartels, the relationship between the Mexican and American governments, and how corruption and death pass back and forth over the Mexico-United States border, themes that seem to overlay each chapter.

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(Mexican border with El Paso, TX)

Art Keller is once again the main protagonist and he maintains his ability to make enemies among key characters in the cartels, as well as members of the American government whose job it is to create and enforce drug laws.  In THE FORCE Keller’s ability to create enemies reaches new heights as he manages to alienate his own Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the United States Senate, the Mexican drug cartels, and the President of the United States.  It seems Keller has triggered a scandal that results in an investigation that spreads from Mexican poppy fields to Wall Street, all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Keller has been fighting the drug war for decades, but his focus was across the border in Mexico.  When he shifts his strategy the war on drugs will be impacted inside the United States as it rolls up several interesting individuals.

The key event takes place in Guatemala on November 1, 2012 at a supposed peace conference involved rival cartels, the Zeta and Sinaloa.  However, instead of peace it turns into a bloody shootout that results in the death of the Zeta leadership, and Adan Barrera, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, a man whose history with Keller goes back decades and as delineated in the first two books of the trilogy.  Barrera’s death cannot be confirmed for over a year, but once it conclusive the question that dominates Keller’s mindset is who will replace him, how that individual or individuals will carry on the cartel’s drug empire, and what are the implications for a drug trade with the United States that sees the volume of drugs arriving in the United States expanding, and the resulting explosion of deaths from drug overdoses.

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(The wall that separates El Paso and Juarez)

Keller’s imprint on the events in Guatemala are a well-kept secret, an operation that was rogue within American drug enforcement, though it had the President’s approval.  Keller, who will be appointed the head of the DEA because of the machinations of Texas Senator Ben O’Brien wants to radically change the DEA’s approach but he must deal with Washington’s bureaucracy, an assistant head of the DEA who opposes him and wants his job, and a presidential candidate for the 2016 election who wreaks of Donald Trump.  Further, the prison system in the United States  has a privatization component, therefore if policy is changed it could cost people in high places billions.  For years the American approach was to try and deal with the drug problem inside of Mexico.  Since the Mexican government was in bed with the cartels, with Washington’s pseudo cooperation, in order to maintain political stability, it is not surprising that the DEA and other agencies made little headway.  Keller’s new strategy is to focus on what was occurring inside the United States which leads to numerous roadblocks and an approach that had not really been implemented previously.

As in all of Winslow’s books there are layers to the overall story, and THE BORDER is no different.  Once the cartels decide to shift their export focus to heroin resulting in a major increase in drug related deaths Keller decides to do something to curtail demand in the United States and make it unprofitable for Americans involved in the trade.  The key for Keller is how does the cartel launders its drug money which leads Keller’s investigation to Wall Street.  Keller’s work is further complicated by the upcoming presidential election, an operation designated “Agitator” that calls for an undercover agent penetrating America’s finance system at a high level, and trying to implement much of his strategy in secret, away from elements in the DEA and other agencies who have a separate agenda from what Keller is trying to achieve.

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(Don Winslow, author)

As Winslow unveils his diverse plot lines characters from previous books reappear, but he also creates new ones who have a major impact on the course of the novels.  First, Dr. Marisol Cisneros, badly wounded in a previous cartel attack and the love of Keller’s life; Ignacio Esparza, Barrera’s brother-in-law; Elena Sanchez Barrera, Adan’s sister; Sean Callan and his wife Nora, Sean a former hit man for Adan Barrera and Nora his mistress; Raphael Caro, a Sinaloa god father figure who wields a great deal of influence and other narco types from the two earlier books.  Next, we meet John Dennison, who might as well be Donald Trump, candidate for president; Jacob Lerner, the second coming of Jared Kushner who is Dennison’s son-in-law who has major real estate investment issues.  The cartel figures abound, Tito Ascension, known as El Mastin who at one time was head of Esparaza security and now heads the New Jalisco cartel; Belinda Vatos, La Fosfora, in charge of security for the Nunez faction of the Sinaloa cartel; Ricardo Nunez, the head of the Sinaloa cartel; “Little” Ric Nunez, Barrera’s godson who tries to step into his empty shoes; Damien Tapia and the Renterias brothers who also try to take advantage of Adan Barrera’s death; and Darius Darnell, a black ex-con who is trying to carve out his own nitch in the drug trade centered in New York.  Keller’s allies include; Hugo Hidalgo, the son of a murdered DEA agent and assistant to Keller; Brian Mullen and Bobby Cirello, NYPD detectives working on Operation Agitator; and Admiral Roberto Orduna, Mexican Special Forces, an ally of Keller.   Chandler Clairborne is a different type of character, white collar, a syndication broker for the Berkley Group, who has links to money laundering; and Denton Howard, assistant head of DEA who supports Dennison and wants Keller’s job, among many others who impact the story.

Winslow repeatedly brings out the inequities in the war on drugs and changes that are needed as a disproportionate number of poor Hispanics and African-Americans get ensnared by the mandatory minimums endemic to the legal system.  Winslow’s views are brought out through Keller’s appearance before a Senate Committee and other avenues.  The number one reason for the increase in the heroin trade that has reached epidemic proportions is the poverty in the United States that has moved from large urban areas to small towns and rural regions. Keller, a.ka. Winslow argues the real source of the opiate problem is on Wall Street.  Corporate America ships out shops overseas, closes factories, which destroys people’s hopes and dreams resulting in pain for significant numbers of Americans.  For Winslow what is the “difference between a hedge fund manager and a cartel boss?”

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Winslow provides numerous descriptions and insights into the narco culture as he describes family life, education, funerals etc.  He takes the reader inside the US prison system and explains the daily existence of inmates  and the socio-economic hierarchy that exists and how the cartels are run from prison and how the narco types outside the prison influence what happens behind its walls.  Winslow creates characters like, Jacqui as an example of how a little girl grows up to be an addict, providing gruesome details of her acquisition of and use of drugs.  This is played out in Staten Island, NY, not Mexico.  He also creates the characters of Nico Ramirez and Flor, a nine and ten-year-old who escape Guatemala and make their way through Mexico to the US border.   The entire political culture of the cartel’s places Keller in a double bind situation.  The Sinaloa cartel is the key to the heroin trade.  If he destroys the trade the Pax Sinaloa for Mexico will end resulting in chaos and instability in the daily lives of Mexicans.  However, if he does not destroy the trade, the heroin epidemic in the United States will continue to explode.  Further the US bureaucracy is split on how to deal with the situation; the CIA and State Department collude with the Mexican government in dealing with the drug trade, while the DEA, Justice Department want to take the cartels down.

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The back story that exists throughout the novel apart from Keller’s war against the cartels are the cartels themselves.  Once Adan Barrera is dead the wars to control the Mexican drug trade recommence and the results are brutal as individuals try to make a name for themselves, and others try to recapture reputations and territory that they had previously lost to Barrera’s cartel.

The degree of financial and moral depravity described by Winslow is beyond the pale.  The inroads of the cartels into American politics and power is how the author derives his title.  The financing of the drug trade was usually in Mexico, now it has crossed the border.  By reading Winslow’s trilogy, three books in quick succession made me feel I was partaking in a penetrating journey – a voyage to many dark places that produce horror, depravity, disgust, and shame.  But the trip is one of necessity as Winslow has educated the reader, and at the same time he has produced a narrative that is a compelling view of reality even though it is supposedly a work of fiction.

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(US-Mexico border [El Paso and Juarez])

THE CARTEL by Don Winslow

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(Jaurez, Mexico border with the US)

“Mexico, the land of pyramids and palaces, deserts, jungles, mountains and beaches, markets and gardens, boulevards and cobblestoned streets, broad plazas and hidden courtyards, is now known as a slaughter ground.

And for what?

So North Americans can get high.” (THE CARTEL, 314)

 

“Hard to believe that 2010, the annus horribiis of the Mexican drug war, has finally come to an end.

The final tally of drug related deaths in Mexico in 2010 comes to 15,273.

That’s what we count now, Pablo thinks, instead of counting down to midnight.

We count deaths.” (481)

 

Don Winslow’s second installment of his narco trafficking trilogy, THE CARTEL seems nastier than THE POWER OF THE DOG.  The cast of characters is similar, but new ones are introduced that seem to be derived from the depths of humanity, and in this case the pit that is known for its violent drug culture.  However, Winslow’s opening leads the reader to believe that the story line might go in a different direction as the reader is introduced to a bee keeper tending his bees in a monastery and during his free time he is at prayer.  One should not be fooled as the bee keeper is Art Keller, the hero of THE POWER OF THE DOG, a former CIA operative and DEA agent who has been fighting narco traffickers for over thirty years.  Once Keller is reintroduced so is Adan Barrera, narco kingpin and the bane of Keller’s and the DEA’s existence.  In fact, Winslow points out that Barrera is even rated 67th most powerful man in the world by Forbes  magazine. The latest version of Winslow’s trilogy has all the elements of the first, but it might be my imagination, but it feels more violent and a steeper climb into the underworld of drugs that seem to seep into every crevice of Mexican society, government, and justice.  In addition, it is also a tale of two major business organizations that fight to the death for market share – it is eerie how this story unravels.

The hatred between Keller and Barrera is heightened as Keller fakes the funeral of Barrera’s daughter to lure him into a trap that results in his arrest and imprisonment.  THE CARTEL is the perfect sequel as Barrera puts out a $2 million contract on Keller who is forced to live like a fugitive in Mexico and America.  From inside Puente Grande Prison, supposedly Mexico’s harshest maximum facility, Barrera is treated as a “king” and begins to rebuild his drug empire.  Business is booming, which fosters envy from all those narco kingpin wan bees who believed he was out of the picture – the result is civil war, revenge, violence, torture, all emanating from within the narco world, but also outside as many innocent people are killed.  The civil war becomes extremely convoluted as the cartels keep switching sides, making it difficult to follow who is killing who, and for what reason.

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(Mexico border at El Paso, TX)

While inside prison Barrera meets Magna Beltran, who becomes his mistress.  Beltran is just one example of the new characters that Winslow creates to carry his new novel.  She was arrested for drug running when she meets Barrera and he courts her as if they were on the outside.  She is an ambitious woman who realizes once her looks are gone, she will be discarded.  She worms her way into Barrera’s good graces and develops a drug business of her own and becomes a major narco player.  Other important characters include Osiel Contreras who heads the Gulf Cartel and the Zeta army made up of former special forces soldiers, deserters,  and police that is trained and led by a former soldier, Heriberto Ochoa.  Ochoa oversees the Zetas as they try and infringe upon other cartel territories.  Eddie Ruiz, a former high school football star who, as with most characters in the book becomes involved in the drug trade as he builds himself a small empire but is forced to join Barrera for protection from Contreras’ Zeta army.  It appears that each narco head has his own private army with the latest weaponry to go after each other and protect their investments.  Winslow is very astute or sarcastic as he points out that in the old days, the narco leaders would be at the forefront of the fighting, but now they send their own private forces to do their dirty work.  The violence becomes so bad that as cartel armies go against each other one gets the feeling they are in Iraq,  Syria, or Afghanistan.  In fact, the drug wars became terror wars with indiscriminate killing to intimidate and sow fear, rather than conquer targets.

Winslow uses Barrera’s desire to expand into the Juarez cartel as a vehicle to explore the socio-economic problems of Juarez, a city that lies across the river from El Paso as well as the inability of the authorities to provide protection for its citizenry.  Using Pablo Mora, a reporter for El Periodico as a tool to explain how the police have a difficult time solving crimes, the reporter explains why the structure of policing is inefficient, and why duties are distributed in such a manner that they overlap creating redundancy and incompetence.  With combinations of city police, state prosecutors and police, federal prosecutors and police, a grab bag of intelligence agencies from the city, state, and national governments, and of course the influence of the cartels which have their own police forces made up of current and retired officers it is amazing that the police can accomplish anything for the public good.  Mora’s work provides insights into cartel policies and their impact on Mexican and American society.  Mora is an important character as Winslow tries to integrate somewhat of a “normal” individual into the story, but he too suffers as his four-year-old son moves to Mexico City due to divorce.

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(supposed caravans unwelcome at US border)

Another exceptional character is Marisol  Cisneros, a physician who Keller falls in love with.  She is stubborn to the point that she puts her safety in question.  Refusing to back down to the violence wrought by the cartels in Valverde, her home village where she runs a medical clinic for the poor, her story provides further evidence for the ruthless behavior employed by the sociopaths that head the cartels.

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(The Author)

Winslow’s ability to invent unusual characters that capture the reader’s attention is limitless.  Two Mexican government officials, Louis Aguilar and Gerardo Veras begin working with Keller, but their loyalties are questioned making it hard to determine what their agendas are, and which one can be trusted.  Keller’s relationship with DEA head Tim Taylor reemerges and the results are interesting to say the least. Eddie Ruiz acquires the nickname of “Crazy Eddie,” or “Narc o Polo” and he eventually allies with Jesus “Chuy” Barajos, an eleven-year-old boy from the barrio who is trained as an elite soldier by the Zetas.  After a series of events he switches sides, joins Ruiz, and acquires the nickname “Jesus the Kid.”  It seems that Chuy found religion when he was picked up by a religious cult called La Familia Michoacana, led by a cult figure, named Nazario. The cult engages in good works for Jesus providing food, medical care, and housing throughout the barrios of Mexico and American border regions.  The problem of course is how this is funded, and you can guess it was paid for by the “meth trade,” whereby the family had built its own drug empire which of course had intruded on another cartel’s area of control.  Another family/cartel is headed by Diego Tapia, who along with his two brothers are allied with Barrera, until they aren’t.  If there is a common theme to many of the characters it is their fear of going to sleep, which brings them dreams about all the murders they have witnessed, covered, implicated, or for a few committed.  For Pablo it is “the dead, the dying, the grieving.  The dismembered, the decapitated, the flayed.” (559)

There are other characters and story lines that emerge for the reader to discover, but they all revolve around the drug trade, the domination of supply and distribution, particularly the burgeoning heroine epidemic in the United States, corruption of the Mexican government and law enforcement, and the violence as the cartels go to war with each other, with certain personalities continuing their vendettas.

At times Winslow’s sense of humor emerges as he points out that NAFTA, does not stand for the North American Free Trade Agreement, but “the North American Free Drug Trade Agreement.”  THE CARTEL  is a bit longer that THE POWER OF THE DOG, but it packs an even greater punch and will keep the reader riveted as it expands its exploration of the drug trade from Central and South America feeding the habits of American citizens.  Winslow is a master of numerous story lines that eventually converge.  The reader needs to be on their toes not to miss a step as the author unveils his plot very carefully, i.e.; Keller’s off book investigation of the Mexican justice system after he helped ignite the cartel civil war.  The book is an eye opener and difficult to put down.  After I finished reading, I can only imagine what new twists and turns Winslow will introduce in the third installment of his trilogy due out this February, entitled, THE BORDER.

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THE POWER OF THE DOG by Don Winslow

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(Border checkpoint between Tijuana and the United States)

 

“A war on terrorism, a war on communism, a war on drugs.

There’s always a war on something.”  That is the human condition I am                                  afraid……”

Art Keller, San Diego, 1999

 

Don Winslow begins THE POWER OF THE DOG with the murder of nineteen people by Mexican narco-traffickers in the nation’s capital in 1997.  This is a signal to the reader that the tale that is about to unravel will not be for the squeamish, but also it provides a hint of what is to come.  In addition, it reflects how the drug trade operates, and it feels extremely contemporary.  If you choose to continue, Winslow will take you on an unbelievable thirty ride inside American law enforcement and narco traffickers as the drug trade in South and Central America is presented in a brutal fashion.

Winslow’s protagonist, Art Keller, is a DEA agent who had moved over to the agency from the CIA with a background in the Phoenix (assassination) Program during the Vietnam War. Keller’s presence in the DEA is controversial as the agency dislikes what they perceive to be “CIA Cowboys,” that results in a consistent theme of shutting Keller out from DEA policies.  Keller witnesses the murders of the men, women, and children, and blames himself for what has occurred because he had recruited the perpetrators of the murders, Adan Barrera.

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Winslow will turn the clock back to 1975 to provide context and a path to understanding for the reader by introducing Operation Condor, a plan to take down Don Pedro Aviles and his narco empire.  The novel focuses on the Sinaloa cartel at the outset and a joint US-Mexican operation to destroy the poppy fields and Aviles’ operation to take down the Mexican drug trade.

Keller’s background from growing up in the San Diego barrio without a father, his time in the CIA, and the attitude of DEA hire ups toward him help form his worldview.  For Keller, his goals are clear and the government bureaucracies that seems to get in the way are just obstacles to overcome.  When the DEA shuns him, he strikes up a relationship with the Barrera family; first with Adan and his brother Raul, then with their uncle, Miguel Angel Barrera (known as Tio) of the Sinaloa State Police.  These relationships form the core of Winslow’s narrative as Keller feels that Tio who he worked with to stop the drug trade used him as a means of taking out the Aviles network and create his own under the guise of the federacion.  Keller works diligently to rectify that wrong and assuage his guilt because of the murders.  However, since this is about Mexico and the narco trade they are not the only murders, and not the only examples of Keller’s revenge, a major theme of the novel.  Other themes include the narco civil wars between competing cartel factions, the corruption of the Mexican government, and the American obsession with anti-communism.

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From the outset Winslow fosters a narrative of distrust – who are the good guys?  Winslow also manufactures a realism as he describes the drug trade that seems right from the front pages of current newspapers.  His story line development is taught as he introduces people who seem very believable in the roles they are assigned.  Characters like Tim Taylor, Keller’s DEA boss; Bishop Jan Parada, whose life’s work is to help the poor and believes in liberation theology; the Barreras; the Piccone Brothers, who add an Italian mob element to the story; John Hobbs, CIA Station Chief for Central America who oversaw US pseudo enforcement and cooperation with the Cartels; Salvatore Scachi, a Special Forces Colonel, CIA asset, made Mafia wise guy, and a participant in the Phoenix program in Vietnam;  Fabian Martinez, a Tijuana narco wanna be;  Obop and Sean Callan who emerge as focal characters in the Irish mob in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and assassination experts; and Nora Hayden, sometime prostitute, sometime mistress, sometime US intelligence source who are all fascinating keys in what Winslow is trying to convey.  With a myriad of characters, the reader needs to pay close attention, particularly the juxtaposition of Keller and Anan Barreras as they begin as “friends,” but the relationship rests on each using the other to achieve their agendas.

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Winslow has excellent command of history and he integrates important events to enhance his story.  The discussion of the September 19, 1985 Mexican earthquake (8.0 on the Richter scale) that resulted in over 5000 deaths reflected the weakness of the Mexican government and emphasizes that apart from the US, the main source of aid would come from the Vatican and Narco bosses.  The insights fostered by Winslow’s discussion of the earthquake are important as it took pressure off the Cartel as Mexico City had to rebuild.  Another important historical theme is the role of communism and American foreign policy to Central America.  The Reagan administration was obsessed with the rise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua fearing the spread of its socialist ideology throughout the region.  Reagan did not want to see another Cuban model  and supported the Contra movement to defeat the Sandinista’s.  The funding of the Contras would lead to the Iran-Contra affair later, but in 1985 the model was clear, the Mexican Trampoline where coke was flown up from Columbia to El Salvador, then transported to Mexico where it was shipped to Mafia bosses in the United States for distribution.  The Mafia paid for the drugs with weapons and military hardware for the Contras with the full knowledge of the CIA.  It is interesting that Barrera was funding Contra training camps in El Salvador for the CIA!

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The pseudo alliance between the CIA and the cartels to block leftist politicians and union leaders from achieving power is historically accurate.  Winslow points to programs like “Red Mist,” that applied assassination as a means of getting rid of any opposition, ostensibly creating a Phoenix program for South and Central America, and Operation Cerberus, a conspiracy to equip, fund, and train the Contras through the sale of cocaine.  Coordination involved hundreds of right-wing militias and their drug lord sponsors, a thousand army officers, a few hundred thousand troops, dozens of separate intelligence agencies, police forces, and the church.  American funding allowed the militias to carry out their mission that would lead to Death Squads in El Salvador and Guatemala resulting in the death of over 200,000 people. Later,  A disgusted President Bush finally withdrew US support for a program he was deeply involved with as Vice-President.  It is also interesting how Winslow blends the approval of NAFTA by the US congress to help bring Mexico out of poverty, so the drug trade needed to be kept off the front pages.

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(cartel drug deal gone bad in Mexico)

Winslow also takes the reader inside the cartels as they compete for “market share,” sources for product, and distribution networks.  The narco kingpins try and make it sound like a normal capitalist enterprise, however the corruption, violence, intimidation, extortion, murder is all part of their business model.  They own segments of the police, the justice system, cooperation of elements in the Catholic Church, and government powerbrokers as they bribe and coerce all components of society to achieve their ends.  Throughout the book there are numerous plot shifts and alliances that seem to change at the whim of the characters.  Each change is unpredictable and keeps the reader paying rapt attention.  The bottom line is that these interactions are despicable and produce feelings of disgust with American intelligence operatives and the deals they make – though in their own minds their rationalizations are completely justified.

Winslow has written a scary novel with a very believable scenario.  It is thoughtful, well written, and eye opening for those who are unaware of the depth of the drug trade.  For those who have become hooked on the subject matter, Winslow has written a sequel, THE CARTEL, with a third volume due out in February 2019, called THE FORCE.

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(border checkpoint between Tijuana and the United States)