Police Corruption Never Ends In Don Winslow's New NYPD Novel, 'The Force'

Police cordon off the scene in lower Manhattan. Spencer Platt/Getty

I'm sharing a booth with best-selling crime novelist Don Winslow at a diner on Manhattan's Upper West Side, right before the toniest part of the neighborhood bleeds into Morningside Heights, home to Columbia University and public housing projects. He lived a few blocks from here in the 1970s and '80s, in a ninth-floor apartment with a bathtub he'd hide in when gunfire popped outside.

"Back then, there was small-arms fire," says Winslow, who's tan, slight and dapper in a crisp white shirt and navy blazer. "That was the nadir of the city. Summer of Sam. Freeze to death in the dark. Go to hell. It was bad, and we were all poor, but I have a certain nostalgia for it."

He speaks just as he writes, in short, sturdy sentences, rife with repetition, that bring you inside a literary world you can easily imagine on the big screen. Winslow is page-turner royalty. He's written 20 novels that have been published in 28 counties. Two have been made into movies: Oliver Stone's Savages and John Herzfeld's The Death and Life of Bobby Z. Ridley Scott optioned The Cartel, Winslow's international best-seller about the Mexican drug wars that The New York Times and Amazon had named a top book in 2015. (When I ask where in California he lives, he won't say: "Because of The Cartel, I now get death threats and all that kind of happy crap.") But he calls his latest novel, The Force, "the book I've wanted to write my whole life."

Don Winslow
American author Don Winslow is page-turner royalty. He’s written 20 novels that have been published in 28 counties. His latest, 'The Force,' is about corrupt New York City cops. Jens Schlueter/Getty

Part The Godfather, part The Wire, The Force is a Molotov cocktail of cops and corruption, where good guys are also bad guys, and police malfeasance isn't just about skimming money off drug busts—it's about something far more insidious: the corruption that comes when trying to do the right thing. Denny Malone is "the king of Manhattan North," a veteran New York Police Department detective sergeant who's been keeping the streets safe for 18 years. He's a lapsed Irish Catholic from Staten Island with tattoo sleeves, a Dexedrine addiction, an ex-wife and a girlfriend.

Malone and his elite special unit, "Da Force," are "the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, the best, the baddest." He operates at the edge of the racial tensions and drug wars exploding across New York, and he's driven by a desire to save the city—and, in the process, possibly even to save himself.

That's because Malone and his crew are dirty. They stole millions in dollars and drugs when Da Force made the biggest heroin bust in New York history. The book opens with an extraordinary predicament: Malone, hero cop, is in federal lockup. Over the next 480 pages, we find out exactly how he got there, how far he'll go to be free and what it really means to be a "good cop."

Winslow grew up around cops. His godfather was a police officer, and as a young man, Winslow spent years as a private investigator, working murder cases, arsons and wrongful-death suits. But his fascination with cops—their lives, their families, the people they saved, screwed over and killed—began when he saw The French Connection. He was 13. "It seemed like such a different way to tell a story. It was about cops, but their inner lives, and grittier and more real."

To write The Force, Winslow spent five years interviewing "scores" of police officers—courageous cops, legendary homicide detectives, "overt racists." He'd tell them, "'I don't need the facts. I know the facts. I've read the court records. I know your cases. I want the feeling,'" he says. "Drug traffickers are much easier to get to know than cops. They are less insular. They are less suspicious…. But once a cop [lets you in], he totally trusts you."

Once, a cop in Greenwich Village sat across from him talking about murdered children, tears streaming down his cheeks. "For some reason, over two to three months, he caught six child homicides, all unrelated. Bang, bang, bang, bang. I don't think he's ever recovered," Winslow says.

At times, Winslow was frightened. "I'm not an easy guy to scare. It's not bravado; I'm just telling you, I'm not," he says. "But riding around some of the hoods at 2 a.m., you feel scared because the hostility level is so high. It wasn't this incident or that, it was the overall zeitgeist of absolute hatred coming your way."

Winslow wrote The Force during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, with names like Freddie Gray, Philando Castile and Michael Brown echoing in his ears. The book's first few pages reveal another side of this tragic political environment. Winslow writes, "During the time that I was writing this novel, the following law enforcement personnel were murdered in the line of duty. This book is dedicated to them." Next comes a gut-wrenching two-and-a-half-page list of names—178 fallen officers, one after another, separated only by commas.

"You keenly felt it," Winslow says about writing a cop epic in this atmosphere. "There would be times when I would pick up a newspaper and know that I had to make a phone call. You know, a sympathy call." He trails off, clears his throat and mutters "sorry" as he jerks back into the booth. It takes me a moment to realize that his eyes are filling with tears.

He is thinking about "a couple of particular cops," he says, taking a sip of water. "One thing I wanted to explore is cops killing young African-Americans, and what's that about? And knowing that there are two sides to this…. You're looking at people who've become adversaries and enemies that should be friends and allies. Most cops truly, and at times desperately, want to protect the people."

Winslow is the kind of guy who could riff for hours about the militarization of the police, the catastrophe of the criminal justice system, the benefits of old-school policing (prevention, not reaction) and the importance of Black Lives Matter. "It has a point—it's unquestionable. And most cops, when they're being really honest with you, will say the same thing."

The Force is not only a bleak commentary on race in America. It also paints a version of New York City (or any city, really) that none of us would choose to live in if we knew what actually went down in police stations, backrooms and courtrooms. And that's why it's delicious—Winslow's world is so corrupt, it feels more like fantasy than reality, even though it's probably happening all around us.

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The Force by Don Winslow, publisher Harper Collins, out now, $28 (£19.) Harper Collins