The Border by Don Winslow — a new crime classic

The Sunday Times
By John Dugdale

The stupendous conclusion to Don Winslow’s drug-war trilogy.

Don Winslow’s timing has always been good. This book, the final part of his vast trilogy on Mexico’s narco wars, is due out just a fortnight after the 10 guilty verdicts on the real-life kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Adan Barrera, Winslow’s antihero partly modelled on Guzman, died at the end of 2015’s The Cartel. The Border depicts the ensuing bloody power struggle as spoilt brats from the next generation (“los hijos”) challenge Barrera’s chosen successor, while formerly comatose rival syndicates awaken and seek to exploit the reigning Sinaloa cartel’s chaos.

What’s different about this third instalment, however, is that the focus is as much on America as on Mexico: it’s a domestic political novel as well as the conclusion of an epic Latin American crime chronicle. Beginning in Barack Obama’s second term, The Border ends in spring 2017 with a rogue Republican called John Dennison recently installed in the White House. Many of the key issues and developments of the Trump years are reflected in the story lines: the surge in smuggled migrants and drugs that the Wall is meant to stop; the opioid crisis fuelled by Mexican heroin and fentanyl; the crimes committed by figures linked to the president; and the investigation that might threaten Dennison’s hold on power.

These themes are possible because in The Border the series hero Art Keller, hitherto a DEA agent conducting a decades-long vendetta against Barrera, is made the organisation’s boss in Washington. When not fighting in-house and congressional enemies, he oversees two operations: using an undercover cop to infiltrate the biggest heroin deal ever busted; and “turning” a hedge fund manager so he records real-estate investors (including a close associate of Dennison) admitting knowing that a huge loan is laundered narco money.

Neither a Washington roman à clef nor a fictionalised history of the cartels’ game of thrones was remotely on the cards when Winslow began his career with private-detective mysteries in the 1990s. His breakthrough to work of stunning ambition came in 2005, after years of research, with The Power of the Dog, about America’s War on Drugs (its “longest war”, he notes) and the rise and fall of Mexican narcotics empires.

Fans then had a long wait until its sequel, The Cartel, which uncannily featured a Barrera jailbreak and was published a month before El Chapo’s famous escape in July 2015. With The Cartel peers and critics finally began to recognise the scale and narrative power of Winslow’s project. While The New York Times invoked The Godfather, James Ellroy (his only rival as a series-builder in terms of historical sweep and size of cast) called it “the War and Peace of dope-war books”. Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Stephen King and Ian Rankin have also paid awestruck homage, implicitly inducting Winslow as a fellow-member of crime fiction’s elite.

But such tributes have yet to translate into sales as stonking as theirs. Are the books too long? Too foreign? Too literary? Too confusingly polyphonic? Too unfilmable? Probably some of all of the above. The lack of screen adaptations, at least, could soon be rectified, as Ridley Scott has optioned The Cartel.

For all its political content, The Border is predominantly about crime, flipping between the upsurge in slayings in Mexico, for which Keller feels responsible since he killed Barrera and so ended the “Pax Sinaloa”, and police stings in New York that recall Winslow’s definitive dirty-cop novel The Force. There’s scope for other material, though, and a strand following the journey north of a child migrant from Guatemala is particularly admirable.

Towards the end, the fusion of real and fictional elements becomes more problematic, and a denouement involving a long speech by a hero clearly acting as the author’s proxy would usually be regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned and stagy. But the rest of this stirring, stupendous novel, not to mention the entire 1,900-page trilogy covering almost 50 years that it completes, entitles Winslow to any amount of slack.

Don Winslow
The Border