I read The Power of the Dog for three reasons:
2] Don Winslow is a guest at Bristol's Crime Fest in May 2011, and naturally I felt I should read at least one of his books.
3] I was snowed in, and I felt the tightly packed 500 plus pages would snugly fill up the rest of 2010.
The plot deals with an almost thirty year battle between various Mexican drug gangs, and DEA agent Art Keller. The book could be considered faction as real life events [such as the assassination of Cardinal Posadas Ocampo at Guadaljara International Airport in 1993] are used as a basis for a complex story of extreme violence and constant betrayal.
The Independent on Sunday blurbled 'This is Winslow's masterpiece....Superb!'
While an Amazon reviewer stated it was 'just a fun gangsters book for the masses'.
Why was I a bit disappointed with a novel that apparently took six years of research to write?
Firstly I constantly got a feeling of deja vue as I was reading. it seemed like a composite of The Godfather, Good Fellas, Clear and Present Danger, All the Pretty Horses, and No Country for Old Men; and as I got further into the book previous events in the book seem to be repeated over and over again. Real life perhaps, as betrayal followed betrayal, but repetitious and overwhelming.
Then the characters never go beyond the shallow stereotypes one sees in gangster movies, there are Mexican killers, Mafia killers, Ex Vietnam CIA American killers and Irish killers:
Callan- the Irish-American stone cold killer who tells his girl friend, Siobhan, he is going straight and hides a Swedish Model 45 Garl Gustaf 9-mm submachine gun under the bed. [Shouldn't that be Carl Gustav]. Siobhan finds it doing the dusting.
Nora- the good hearted whore, who happens to meet Archbishop Parada in the ruins of Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake and decides to use her position, and his to do some good.
This relationship provides almost the only faint glimpse of humanity and humour in the book.
He smiles again, and nods, and says, " I'm going to wager that you're a very successful call girl."
"I am," Nora says. "I'll bet you're a very successful archbishop."
"As a matter of fact. I'm thinking of quitting."
"I'm not sure I believe anymore."
Nora shrugs and says, "Fake it."
"It's easy," she says. "I do it all the time."
When Archbishop Parada embraces liberation theology you know he will go the way of Big Paulie.
The plot is a blur of conflicts and deals between various ruthless government agencies, the Barrera organization [Tio Miguel Angel, and brothers Adnan and Raul], and another equally violent drug lord Guero Mendez. The action whizzes around from Mexico, to New York [you know a character named Big Paulie is bound to be hit], El Salvador, Honduras, and Hong Kong. You start to believe that all Mexican police agencies from federales to state cops are in the pay of the drug cartels, and all Mexican Presidents!
And as Art's thirty year struggle to bring down the Barreras goes on and on and on.....surely an editor could have tightened the plot down to 350 pages? With almost ever major character so flawed it is difficult to feel any sympathy for them or interest in their fate. Perhaps that is why the book was such a quick read despite its length.
You wonder if the tragedy going on in Mexico is the real responsibility of the drug traffickers, the CIA, the Sandinistas, the Vatican, Opus Dei, the Mafia, the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party], Right Wing Death Squads, Left Wing Death Squads, NAFTA, or George Walker Herbert Bush.
Is there a solution? If drugs were legalized and supplied by the government tomorrow, would the gangs carry on dealing in people, women and children for sex, body parts, anything people will pay for?
You have to lack human compassion to deal in drugs, and the violence perpetrated by the characters in this book is both horrific and constant. There may be other attendees at Crime Fest, most of whom are female, who may not be able to deal with this level of violence, and the macho attitudes towards women. So be warned if you want to read a Don Winslow book before Crime Fest, and are of a cosy disposition avoid The Power of the Dog.