Saturday, September 23, 2017

Book Reviews: The Force

The Force
by Don Winslow
Winslow is a skilled writer who has done his research into the NYPD. Winslow dedicated this book to the cops killed in the line of duty. This book is not the simplistic self-righteous agitprop of the TV show Bluebloods. Winslow is too talented for that. But when Winslow says that we rely on the police to protect us or that we give the police conflicting goals that complicate their jobs I don't think that me or mine are really part of Winslow's "we". Life is indeed complex, as are Winslow's characters. Still, having read this book I wonder if I could trust Winslow to be willing to convict a cop in real life. But it's just a novel so who knows. Maybe that's part of Winslow's skill.

Winslow depicts realistic racist characters. People often disingenuously defend themselves from charges of bigotry by claiming that they couldn't possibly be racist because they have had sex with someone of a different race, have friends of different races, work with people of different races or like music by people of a different race or so on. That's balderdash. The white cop who sodomized Abner Louima had a black girlfriend.  Former NFL star and black man Albert Haynesworth claimed that his white ex-girlfriend abused him and called him racial slurs. People have different facets. We are mixes of good and evil.  Someone can have a cordial work relationship with people of different races while telling nasty racially hostile jokes to those of their own race. A manager can mentor an employee of a different race while passing along Obama monkey jokes. For obvious reasons people may like the attractive opposite gender members of a race that they otherwise despise. You can love your mixed race nieces, nephews or grandchildren and still privately wish your sibling or child had married within their own race. Racist people can respect and even be willing to die for someone they hate because that individual has proven themselves to them. The Force's primary protagonist is a walking example of how humans contain all these contradictions.

Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is one of the most famed and decorated detectives in the NYPD. He is the unofficial leader of the Manhattan North Task Force, a celebrated group of detectives, plainclothes and uniformed officers responsible for solving and preventing felony crimes (drugs, guns, murders) in the north portion of Manhattan  (mostly Harlem and Washington Heights). Denny is a stereotypical Staten Island musclebound racist Irish cop. Generally, Malone does not like black people, particularly the formal leader of Manhattan North, Captain Sykes, whom Malone dismisses as an affirmative action hire. Separated from his white wife, Malone has taken up with Claudette, a black nurse with a substance abuse problem. Malone likes and maybe even loves Claudette. But neither he nor Claudette want to introduce the other to family or friends or be seen in public places where they'd be recognized. Malone is a big rap music fan, especially Nas and NWA.

Racist or not, Malone would kill and die for black Detective Montague, whom Denny recognizes as being much smarter than himself. Before Monty, Denny's closest friend is Detective Russo, with whom he grew up. These three men, along with a few other detectives, see themselves and are seen by others as street kings. They make solid cases, right wrongs, protect children and women from abusive men, and occasionally can be honestly heroic. They are also corrupt. Malone works as a bagman and liaison between a Mafia Family and the NYPD. He and his friends rob drug dealers and other hoodlums. Malone arranges deals between judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to fix or drop cases. Malone gets money from many different deals. Malone rarely pays when he eats at a five star restaurant or has sex with $1200/hr call girls. Malone does special jobs for a politically ambitious brash billionaire real estate tycoon. People across NYC and beyond owe Malone and his team favors or money. Life is good.

Winslow deftly explains how corruption starts, from the uniformed cop who gets free coffee and pastry from the diner on his beat to the plainclothes superintendent who sells information from Internal Affairs to criminals to the undercover cop who decides to pocket some cash left behind at a drug bust. There's always the run of the mill "testilying" in court.

The system is skewed and warped. Malone demonstrates this by forcing a new team member to beat up a suspect who had shot at a cop. It sends a message. The rookie detective does it but the reader sees the transmission of abuse from one generation of cops to the next. Police Headquarters pressures the task force to prevent a shipment of guns from hitting the streets and inflaming a gang war between Dominican and African-American drug dealers. Faced with this demand, Malone enjoys telling Sykes that he can't do what Sykes wants without employing tactics that Sykes won't like. I don't know what the author believes but plainly Malone and plenty of real life conservatives and police simply do not accept that the Bill of Rights applies to police work, particularly in regards to black people. They justify this, as did real life NYC Mayor Bloomberg, by proudly pointing to crime reduction that is correlated with things like stop-and-frisk, forcing people off the streets, invading homes without warrants, arresting or ticketing blacks for minor or even made up violations, or pure physical intimidation "N***** what are you doing in this neighborhood???!!"

It's a devil's bargain. Are you willing to give up some rights to be safe? For many white New Yorkers, the true question was are you willing to make those people give up some rights so you can be safe. To Malone there are only a few no-no's. Paramount among them is do not hurt fellow cops.

But even Malone can make some mistakes. From greed, Malone and his team cross a previously set moral line. Soon Malone faces some difficult decisions with no good options. As with his previous work The Cartel, Winslow brings the reader into a world where loyalty is the highest virtue, though few people show it. But the world is changing. Loyalty and order are crumbling. Winslow makes it clear that the police or "The Force" aren't the only offenders or even the worst ones. Whether it's prosecutors suborning perjury and ignoring judicial wrongdoing, EMS workers accepting that a suspect beaten by the police "fell down the stairs", city officials using police as graft bagmen, businessmen making sweetheart deals to "save" the city, or civil rights preachers taking money from Mob associates, there are many corrupt players. The cops are often just the fall guys for higher placed and more powerful venal people. The problem is systemic.

This was a well written exciting thriller. It wasn't as violent as The Cartel. I wouldn't call Malone sympathetic. But he is human. His desperation, bent morality, and conflicted loyalties draw in the reader. Malone is going to Hell. But each step he took made sense at the time. This book is just under 500 pages.  You won't want to put it down. If you're looking for a realistic detective novel give this a look. As the walls close in you will appreciate how Winslow ties everything together.
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