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Book Review- “The Cartel” by Don Winslow

CartelYou ever experience a story that is just so exciting, compelling, and powerful it just kind of leaves you dumb struck? Or a tale that’s so entertaining and informative that it’s awe inspiring? It’s happened to me a few times. I remember walking out of the movie “Heat” just feeling dazzled and overwhelmed by the powerful and complex tale I had just witnessed. It happened again on a regular basis while watching the HBO series “The Wire.” It’s also happened with graphic novels like Jason Aaron’s “Scalped” series from Vertigo and in prose novels like James Ellroy’s “American Tabloid.”

That feeling also came to me during and after I finished Don Winslow’s epic drug war novel “The Power of the Dog.” It was one of the best books I ever read. It’s an amazing 30 year crime saga. If you haven’t read it yet, go read it now! I’ll be here when you get back. So Winslow set the bar pretty high for epic crime sagas, which meant I was both excited and a little nervous when I heard he was working on “The Cartel,” a sequel to the “Power of the Dog” which would unfold over the course of 10 years. It turns out I was right to be excited and silly to be nervous. Because I’m happy to report that “The Cartel” is also one of the best books I’ve ever read, and it may even be better than “The Power of the Dog.”

Winslow’s “The Power of the Dog” revolved around a sprawling cast of characters but at the book’s center was the relationship between DEA agent Art Keller and drug lord Adan Barrera. In “The Cartel” Winslow returns to Keller and Barrera who continue to be fascinating characters. The experiences of the last book have fueled their enmity and continue to haunt and drive them. So watching their feud flare back up and seeing the directions it goes feels natural, organic, and heartbreaking. These are two deeply flawed protagonists and like all great crime fiction neither character is entirely good or entirely bad despite the fact that they’ve been cast in the roles of lawman and lawbreaker.

The Keller-Barrera rivalry is sort of the center of “The Cartel” but a whole host of fascinating characters are drawn into their don_winsloworbit. We meet the staff of a Mexican newspaper, various drug traffickers, sicarios, soldiers, and civilians trying to navigate the dark and dangerous place their world has become thanks to the drug war in Mexico. What’s great is for pretty much all of these characters you’re swept right up into their stories right away. Some you don’t meet until hundreds of pages into the book, but when you do meet them their part of the world is really interesting and continues to be even more interesting. Plus like Keller and Barrera, many of these characters are also complex and flawed. Some are stubborn people taking a heroic stand, some are idealists losing their way, some are bullies and murderers that I hated with passion, and some are drug dealing killers that I almost sort of rooted for.

The action and story in “The Cartel” is exciting and fascinating. You’re dropped into the middle of gun battles and lightning fast commando raids. It’s also kind of a gut punch though too. Make no mistake, this is a novel about war. People die. Some of them in horrible ways.

So “The Cartel” is a novel that will break your heart. Winslow describes the horrors being perpetrated by the Cartels and their associates in a powerful and haunting manner. You really feel for the people caught up in the nightmare that is life in a country where violent drug cartels dominate almost all aspects of life. Making things even more powerful is the fact that Winslow did a lot of research for “The Cartel.” Many of the characters have been fictionalized, but many of the events and the organizations that perpetrate them are real.

Winslow uses that research and his characters to present a truthful and frightening argument against the drug war. It’s a war where only the rich and powerful profit. The poor and middle class are chewed up and spit out. Winslow also convincingly argues that much of the horrors and evil perpetrated on Mexico and it’s people is the fault of America’s appetite for drugs. People are tortured, murdered, sold, and exploited in Mexico because in my country life has gotten so horrible for some people that they feel the need to escape their life with drugs.

On the back cover of “The Cartel” one of my favorite writers, Michael Connelly, proclaims, “There is no higher mark for a storyteller than to both educate and entertain. With Winslow these aspects are entwined like strands of DNA. He’s a master and this book proves it once again.” Having finished the book I must wholeheartedly agree with Connelly. “The Cartel” is the best type of fiction it moves you, excites you, and makes you think. It’s a hell of a book; one of the best I’ve ever read.

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