The Cartel is one of those books that I picked up based solely on the ratings and recommendations of writer friends whose views I respect. This doesn’t always pay off—we’re different people, after all—but it’s better than banking on whatever’s hitting the top of the bestsellers lists.
In this case, my friends were right. This is a fantastic book. Maybe it’s even better than simply being fantastic. Don Winslow’s The Cartel is The Godfather for a darker, bloodier age, and sure to be considered a classic before too long. An epic covering many years and featuring nearly countless characters, The Cartel covers the drug war on the border between the United States Mexico. It’s unflinching in its depiction of violence and corruption, revealing very few heroes in a fight that claims so many faceless victims on both sides of the border.
At the heart of the story is Art “Killer” Keller, a former DEA agent known for hunting his targets to the ends of the earth and pissing off basically everyone that ever gets close to him. In the past Keller was undercover in the cartel operated by Narco boss Barrera. Keller sent Barrera to prison and then drifted away, living a life of tranquil life among monks. When Barrera escapes prison thanks to a corrupt system in Mexico, the DEA seeks out Keller to warn him about the threat. It’s not long before Keller’s involved in an off-the-books mission to capture or kill Barrera. Threats can be found on all sides—are the Mexican agents dirty? Is Barrera’s cartel watching him? Is the DEA compromised? It’s a story full of action and intrigue as two men gun for each other while the world goes to hell all around them.
Though Keller and Barrera are the center of the story, The Cartel has a wide scope, including characters set within competing cartels (some of them mere children), endangered journalists covering the bloodshed, and idealistic politicians who hope to bring about change. Every character is someone memorable, believably crafted and given their own arc.
Much of the book has a ‘ripped from the headlines’ feel to it, and this American reader wonders how much is based on fact. The story of Barrera escaping prison certainly mirrors the recent escape of El Chapo. So even if Winslow’s book is fiction, it’s a fiction that’s very much rooted in the sad reality of the times. The cartels are winning. The war on drugs is a flawed, wasteful enterprise that’s probably doing more harm than good. The Americans have an insatiable demand for the cartel’s products and the cartels are willing to commit horrible atrocities in order to supply that demand. The Cartel sees characters that hope to fix the problem (and more than a few that hope to profit from it), but it’s a cynical, realistic interpretation of the conflict, one that seems to suggest that perhaps this story has no end.
I kind of wish I’d read Don Winslow’s previous book The Power of the Dog first, a book from 10 years ago which set up characters like Keller and Barrera. But The Cartel is friendly to readers unfamiliar with that earlier novel. The Power of the Dog is now on my list of books to read, along with probably at least six other Winslow novels.
The Cartel deserves all the praise and awards it has gotten since its release last summer. I was horrified and enthralled throughout. The Cartel is a crime epic similar in content and quality to The Godfather, Traffic, and Battles Without Honor and Humanity. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years.
You can order The Cartel from Amazon on paperback, hardcover, and Kindle.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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