Wednesday, 7 August 2019


NOTE: This is the 1,200th post to this blog since I first posted a review of George Pelecanos' The Turnaround in July 2008. I like that symmetry, in part because I have written about Don Winslow often, going back before this blog, and I have been pleased with the way he has taken his career, much as Pelecanos did, from insider's favourite to major best-seller. As you'll see from this review, his success is well-deserved.

I was partway through The Border, following along with the battles between cartels and gangs to fill the power vacuum left in the Mexican drug trade, when I found myself, trying to keep track of who is a cousin of whom, and which section of Mexico they control or wish to control, wishing for a list of the characters, the kind of thing you would find at the start of an epic Russian novel. And it occurred to me at that moment that Don Winslow's War On Drugs trilogy, of which this is the final volume, is a crime fiction version of War And Peace.

No, Don is not Tolstoy, but as the scope of the narrative widens in his story, he manages to do the most crucial thing any epic novel needs to do: balance the stories of its main protagonists on the wider stage with the stories of those affected by what happens on that stage. The Border is balanced finely between Art Keller, the agent who has battled through two novels and 40 years against the Sinaloa Cartel and its rivals and successors, and the newly-embattled drug rivals. Keller, the rebellious, uncontrollable agent, is now head of the DEA, and mired in the Beltway politics which have always been at the heart of the failure of drugs policy. Meanwhile Mexico is breaking out in full-scale warfare between rival drug lords, with the body counts threatening Keller's always tenuous position.

Meanwhile, a new administration is taking over in Washington, a property developer turned reality TV star, whose son in law deals with laundered money. You may see the possibilities for conflicts of interests arising. This plot strand attracted plenty of attention in America, for obvious reasons, and Winslow to some extend has become a visible spokesperson against 'The Wall' as well as on drug policy. It speaks to his intimate knowledge, gleaned from agents and from journalists, and one thing his writing makes clear is how dangerous a profession being a journalist is among the cartels in Mexico; The Border is dedicated to dozens who've sacrificed their lives.

For Keller, whose fight against the cartels has cost him a family, the new job includes a new turn in his relationship with Dr Marisol Cisneros, herself physically a victim of drug violence. Keller has always had at least a foot in both worlds, now he has his entire existence there. But beneath that story, Winslow works the other end of the drug world: the cops and dealers, the junkies and those who try to help them, the refugees fleeing for safety to El Norte, their trip dangerous along the way and difficult once they get there, because you cannot follow the progress of the war without being aware of the lives torn apart on its battlefields. This is epic writing at its layered best, and at times the personal becomes almost unbearably tragic, even as the large scale violence seems unbelievable, except that its real.

As impressive as The Power Of The Dog was in 2005, it was impossible to conceive then that, 15 years later, the story would have been continued through two more novels, each getting better, more nuanced, more textured even as they grow more epic. Sadly, this trilogy may have concluded, but the drug wars, the border crisis, have not.

The Border by Don Winslow
Harper Collins, £20, ISBN 9780008227531
note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (


Daniel525 said...

As rewarding as reading this trilogy is, the single passage in The Border describing the agonizing journey of 10-year-old Guatemalan Nico to the US is outstanding. I've never read anything as good explaining why and how Central Americans escape as they do hoping for a better life. Migration is a natural,normal and historical human activity.

Michael Carlson said...

Yes, the natural contradictions Don weaves into it: leaving because he's been forcibly tattooed, the tattoo causing him to be held in US etc, are almost too much to bear...