Best known for his crime novels about the Mexican drug cartels, author Don Winslow heads east for his new book, to the city of his birth, New York.
"The Force" is about Denny Malone, a good cop gone bad -- except it's not that simple. With Winslow's books -- he's done 20 now -- it rarely is.
Published on Tuesday, the novel is a piercing, profane, morally complex epic about the line police departments walk -- and sometimes cross -- when they set out to keep a community safe. It's already drawn strong reviews in the The Washington Post, The New York Times and other national publications. Movie rights were sold for seven figures last fall, before the book even had a title.
Q: I see in the publicity material that you call this "the book I've wanted to write my whole life." How so?
A: Well, I was born in New York, in Staten Island, which is a locus in the book. I've lived and worked in New York off and on most of my life, partly as a P.I., and I kind of cut my teeth on films and books like "French Connection," "Serpico," "Prince of the City." I've always wanted to write a New York cop novel in that kind of genre. So here we are. I think I was finally ready to write it.
Q: In writing it, what did you want people to know about police work?
A: Boy, how much time do you have? How complicated it is. How deeply they care about the job that they do, about their victims, about keeping people safe. Look, these are all generalizations, and generalizations always break down in detail. Are there bad cops? Sure. Are there racist cops? Sure. Corrupt cops? Sure. But what I learned is that they are capable of and do tremendous acts of compassion and courage.
You get that cop veneer, that tough, cynical thing that I think is a quite necessary defense mechanism to the things that they experience. But underneath that, they feel these things deeply and I think sometimes we forget that when we read, as I did in your newspaper this morning, about a murder. It's shocking to us as the public, but it's the cop who goes to the scene, goes to the morgue, goes to the emergency room, goes to the family. And I think that can extract an enormous cost.
Q: Tell me about the corruption you explore in the book. The line between what's right and wrong, who's bad and good, is a lot fuzzier than we're used to seeing.
A: I think that we, the public, tend to see these things as black and white. If we think about them a little more deeply, we see that there's lots of gray. And we also see that we quite often have contradictory expectations of police. On the one hand, we want perfect security and safety. On the other, we want absolute personal freedom and privacy. Those things can be quite contradictory and can put police in a double bind that is really difficult.
On the topic of corruption, even that's more complicated. We need to break it into different categories almost. There's the very basic financial corruption. Would a cop take a bribe to look the other way or steal something from a crime scene? But there's another kind of corruption that, to put a fancy tag on it, is a procedural corruption.
They start off by doing something very good, with the best of intentions, but then cut a corner that leads them farther and farther into a corrupt place. So you do something in an arrest to get a bad guy off the street and then you have to back it up in court and that means committing perjury. Who knows where that ends.
Or they know some guy is beating the hell out of his wife in the house so one cop goes to the back and yells for help so the other cop can legally go through the front. On one hand, we're quick to condemn that and say that it's wrong, but on the other hand, if we're the person getting the hell beat out of us, we probably want them to do that.
Q: When I finished the book, I couldn't decide whether I liked Denny Malone or not. I wondered if that was intentional on your part.
A: Sure. I'm not in the business of making moral judgments on my characters. That's not my job. What I want is to bring the reader closely into that world and to portray it as accurately and realistically as I can within the bounds of fiction and dramatic structure and all that stuff that makes a book suspenseful and exciting. Because at the end of the day, that's what I do: I'm a crime fiction writer.
Do we like Denny or not like Denny? I don't know. I think that Denny does some very good things that are likable, and I think he does some very bad things that are unlikable. Like most humans, he's complicated.
I'm not interested in writing "heroes" or "anti-heroes." Definitions don't interest me at all, and really never have. When I'm writing a character, I'm trying to write from his or her point of view so I want to be subjective. I want their thoughts and feelings, and it's rare I'm going to step outside that to comment on it.
Q: It's interesting that Denny's point of view is the only one we get in the book. That's a different approach for you, right?
A: Yes, and I struggled with that choice. I wrote some scenes and chapters from different characters' points of views because that's usually what I do and I find that interesting. With this one, it just didn't feel right. It just felt like I needed to be with Denny Malone and stay with Denny Malone and ride that whole ride with him. What I wanted is this character who had put himself into an impossible trap morally, physically, emotionally, psychologically. I think the right choice was to stay in that trap with him and never let up. Never give either him or the reader a break from that.
Q: How did the recent police shootings of unarmed black men play into the research and writing of the book?
A: I talked about it a lot with cops. Those are extremely difficult conversations, by the way, to call up a contact or a friend when one of these things happens and say, "Have you had a chance to see this? What do you think?" Cops famously or infamously tend to circle the wagons, which is a psychology I absolutely understand. I understand it better now than I did three or four years ago.
I got some very frank opinions about these things. They drew a line. You see a guy running away and you put bullets in his back -- there's no excuse for it. But they have a more sophisticated viewpoint about why these things happen.
Again, it is in some cases more complicated than we would think. In some cases, it's not. It's tragically and infuriatingly simple: You have racist cops. In other cases, you have people who should just not be police officers. They are psychologically not equipped for it. Their egos aren't strong enough, which is the opposite of what you would think, right? Their egos are brittle, so when they are challenged, particularly by young black males, they respond violently. Those folks should not be cops, and that's an issue of recruiting and training.
Q: The book is dedicated to the police officers who were murdered in the line of duty during the period you were working on the book. You did something similar in "The Cartel," which was dedicated to slain journalists. Why did you do that?
A: I wanted to acknowledge that while I'm sitting safely writing about these things, there are guys and women who are dying. And I restricted that list not to people who were killed in the line of duty, but to those who were murdered. If I included everyone who died in a car crash or of a heart attack or a fall, the list sadly would have been much longer.
I owe that debt to the people I write about, but more specifically with this book I think it's good for the public to see names and to realize how dangerous a job this really is.
If I screw up a day's work, it's a few bad paragraphs. Of no great consequence, by the way. If they make a mistake, it could be their lives or someone else's.
"The Force," by Don Winslow, William Morrow, 496 pages.
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