Calif. — A car stops on a hilltop. A man gets out. He
walks a few paces and stands at the ridge. The desert
valley stretches to Scissors Crossing, where tiny armies
of migrants and drug mules once slipped through box
canyons in summer swelter and winter frost. They don’t
come so much anymore, but when the man sees them he
thinks of night whispers and lost things.
south toward Mexico and then to the Santa Ana Mountains.
Clouds clamp the horizon; snow glints in the distant
north. The meth labs are pretty much gone, the tweakers
too. But drugs, like seasons, run in cycles. The land is
what grabs you, though, the way it scrunches and
wrinkles and spreads out ancient and flat. Full of
stories and violent souls that slither through the books
of Don Winslow, a parish kid from Rhode Island who never
took to the stink of the fish factory and became one of
the country’s best crime novelists.
steps away from the ridge and slides into his Mustang.
He starts the engine; jazz plays soft in the speakers.
He checks the rear view, taps the gas. It’s a time of
saying goodbye to made-up men and women. ¶ The last
book in his trilogy on America’s drug wars — a
seminal work that spirals from cartel towns to the White
House — will be published on Tuesday. “The Border”
is intricate, mean and swift, a sprawling canvass of
characters including narco kingpins, a Guatemalan
stowaway, a Staten Island heroin addict, a kinky hit
woman, a barely veiled Donald Trump and DEA agent Art
Keller, who over the arc of the trilogy has been noble
and merciless, a conflicted wanderer who makes America
face the transgressions committed in its name.
the exception of my wife and son I’ve spent more time
with Keller than any other person in my life,” says
Winslow, a onetime private investigator who specialized
in arson cases. “Keller and me. Five-thirty a.m. every
morning. He’s kind of a sad guy I think. I don’t
know if I like him or not. He’s gone. I’m not
mourning him but it’s a little weird. Keller and I
have a lot in common. We both come from that Catholic
thing. That guilt-driven moral absolutism.”
is 5 foot 6 and weighs “a buck thirty.” He has the
smooth, inviting voice of a confessor, a man who listens
for revealing cracks in things. He runs on exactitude
and resilience; 12-hour writing days, a punching bag in
his office and a view of a roadside sign that reads:
“1 cord oak $300.” He roams a 30-acre ranch and is
attuned to the odd fact: The lady who makes pies in the
Gold Rush town of Julian, he says, will not hire
left-handed helpers because they can’t get the crust
indentations right. Seriously.
detail and sharp dialogue have made his drug war trilogy
propulsive and compelling. Comprising “The Power of
the Dog” (2005), “The Cartel” (2015) and “The
Border,” the books, spanning nearly 2,000 pages, are
fiction bolted to real life. They pierce and illuminate
our times and draw on Winslow’s research into
government policies, criminal investigations, autopsies,
murder videos, newspaper stories, pharmaceutical
companies, diaries of addicts, the potency of fentanyl
and how 1930s gangster Bugsy Siegel opened the drug
conduit from Mexico.
stories unravel broken lives caught in a mesmerizing
mosaic fueled by addiction and haunted by bloodshed. The
trilogy traces how the drug trade streaked from
provincial to global, defying and outflanking Mexican
authorities and a string of U.S. presidents who, despite
tougher laws, bigger jails and militarized police
forces, could not curb the seething cunning of cartels
and America’s perpetual need for a fix from the poppy
fields. That led to a brutality that killed at least
100,000 Mexicans and built empires for drug lords like
El Chapo, who was convicted this month in New York.
review of “The Cartel,” Janet Maslin wrote in the
New York Times of the book’s “gasp-inducing
knowledge of true crime’s brutal extremes, and for its
unflinching awareness of what Mr. Winslow calls ‘evil
beyond the possibility of redemption.’ Even tougher
than the outright violence is the slow destruction of
idealists … who think they can escape the long shadow
of this ugliness, and who one after another are proved
border — he lives about 40 miles north of Mexico in
San Diego County — is personal to Winslow. Trump’s
calls for a border wall, he says, won’t stop major
traffickers. “It’s so foolish. It makes me crazy,”
says the author who over Twitter last week challenged
Trump to a debate: “Any show. Any anchor. Any time,”
he tweeted. “I’d pay $10,000 to see that!” author
Stephen King added over Twitter.
percent of illicit drugs come through 52 legal points of
entry. Build a wall, but it will always have gates and
the trucks will go through them, one every 15
seconds,” Winslow says. “What the wall could
potentially do is force the little guys to go to the
cartels and enrich the cartels.”
traveler and military historian, Winslow, who has
written 19 books, spent five years leading photographic
safaris in Africa (He speaks Swahili). His days as a
private investigator taught him about human nature and
how “memory is constructed more on present needs than
past reality.” He found a voice in the twisted tales
of men and women facing corruption from within and
without. They spin as if morality parables, dodging
bullets, wisecracks, unmarked graves and killers like
Belinda in “The Border” who craves sex as much as
she enjoys pouring acid on a betrayer’s feet and
hanging him from a yacht’s mast.
central question of crime fiction is how do you live
decently in an indecent world,” he says. “I’ve had
the great joy of reading people who are really great at
it. From the poetry of Raymond Chandler to the realism
of James Ellroy to what Michael Connelly and Dennis
Lehane do. They show us humanity in extremis.”
novels, when he was a boy in Rhode Island, where he won
only one of 73 hockey fights, he read stories about the
New England mob wars. Newspapers ruled then, stacked on
corners, intriguing, snapping open in morning light. He
discovered New York columnist Jimmy Breslin, whose grit
and sparse vernacular brought grifters and working
stiffs to life. The son of a librarian and a sailor,
Winslow had an inkling he might become a writer, notably
after his father hauled him to a fish factory and told
him that was his fate if he didn’t study. He started
paying attention to what to words could do.
Springsteen I think is the poet of the American era,”
he says, a sliver of reverence seeping in. “There’s
a lyric that ends ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’
that I think is the crime fiction writer’s creed.
‘Tonight I’ll be on that hill ‘cause I can’t
stop. I’ll be on that hill with everything I got. With
our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost.
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost. For
wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on
the edge of town.’ That’s the crime novel. Bam.”
stories are sweeping and cinematic. Oliver Stone turned
his “Savages,” the misadventures of two Laguna Beach
marijuana growers who collide with drug lords, into a
movie. Ridley Scott is developing “The Cartel.”
Winslow’s visual sense was instilled when he was a boy
buying $26 train tickets from Providence to New York to
watch movies on Broadway. “The French Connection”
— Gene Hackman as Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle
caught in the grip of the international heroin trade —
left a mark.
don’t think there’s any other genre that is so
intertwined as the crime genre with film and novel. You
can’t separate them,” Winslow says. “They have
been informed by each other from the time they started
rolling the camera. Noir particularly. Look, I never sat
in my office as a PI where a trumpet started and a
long-legged blond walked into the room. It was my wife
and I was home with a jazz record on, but that
soundtrack of noir informs me when I sit down to
hear it in this passage from “The Border”:
“Drunken, undisciplined, underperforming, wonderful
Pablo, dizzy with love for his child, for (hopelessly)
his ex-wife, for his beloved, shattered city. Pablo
wasn’t so much a Mexican as he was a Juarense; his
world began and ended within the limits of the border
town, on the edge of both Mexico and the United States,
its location simultaneously its reason for being and the
reason for its destruction.”
crime fiction novels, TV series and films portray
Latinos as scrambling across borders or trafficking
drugs. They are caricatures easily demonized in our
politically divisive era. Winslow’s depictions of such
nether worlds are woven with deeper portraits, including
journalists in “The Cartel” who lead the reader into
the art, music and nightlife of Mexico, and Keller’s
wife, Marisol Cisneros, in “The Border,” a doctor
with a steely moral compass.
lunchtime. Winslow stops at his favorite place for
tacos. A woman calls him “the nicest man in the
world.” A guy in a cowboy hat talks to him about
baseball, and another hurries by disheveled and out of
sorts. Winslow asks how he is. The man shakes his head
and turns away.
finishes lunch and walks to Orchard Lane, mentioning
that sometimes a migrant, skimming the edge of town like
a breeze, will freeze to death in the twilight.
into his car. The road ascends and curves, looping
skyward. There are cougars up here, he says. Memories
too. Like the 2003 wildfires that left people shoeless
and wandering fields, and then, as if a healing vision,
Buddhist nuns appearing out of the gray mist with coats
and blankets. He has dreams about those days. Black
soil, trees slanted like battered totems from a war.
what happens when you live in a place for 22 years; the
land takes part of you and you take part of it. A writer
becomes his geography.
know,” he says, “after the fires children were
afraid of clouds because they thought it was smoke.”
crests the hill. Stops. A gust kicks and dies. The sky
is metal and splintered with winter light. He gets out
stands on the ridge, pointing here and there, close and
far away, to the things he’s seen, hidden people
scurrying over unknown terrain, carrying things,
stripped of things; drug mules winding to points north
and east to feed a nation’s vast addiction.
see where “The Border” trilogy came from, rising and
twisting like a vicious hymn from the earth.
done writing about it, but I’ll never make peace with
it,” he says.
quiet, the air cold.
ready?” someone asks.
in the car. The rain has held off, but a storm is