We gave it a B+
In this sequel to 2005’s The Power of the Dog, novelist Winslow continues to assail the war on drugs, a campaign whose real cost, he argues, is the lives it has obliterated in Mexico.
Certainly, and tragically, Winslow has had plenty of material to inspire him during the years since the publication of The Power of the Dog. That book tracked the bloody careers of DEA agent Art Keller and his friend–turned–drug-kingpin foe Adán Barrera for a quarter of a century starting in the mid-1970s. The Cartel covers just the years 2004–12, yet Winslow requires more than 600 pages to detail the pair’s continuing feud and its real-life bloodbath backdrop.
The story’s high-octane, helicopter-set prologue aside, matters start quietly enough, with a retired Keller tending to bees at a monastery in New Mexico and Barrera firmly behind bars in San Diego before being transferred to a considerably less secure facility in Guadalajara. After Barrera absconds, Keller returns south of the border to hunt for his archenemy and thwart the ambitions of his fellow drug dealers in obsessive and murderous fashion.
The Cartel arrives with a blurb from James Ellroy (“It’s got the jazz dog feel of a shot of pure meth!”), whose own frequent positioning of fictional characters in epic, real-world scenarios this most obviously resembles. Winslow’s prose is less jazzy, in every sense, than what’s found in Ellroy’s classic L.A. Quartet. But the righteous indignation that fuels his tale of cops, cartels, and the near-apocalyptic havoc they can create is, to use a sadly appropriate word, addictive. B+
THE OPENING LINES
“Keller thinks he hears a baby cry. The sound is just audible over the muted rotors as the helicopter comes in low toward the jungle village.”