Book review – The Cartel

I read Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog within the last year and was impressed enough to want to read its sequel, The Cartel (2015).  Like its predecessor, The Cartel clocks in at over 600 pages in length, so I was obviously hoping that it would deliver the goods.

The Cartel finds us in the familiar company of DEA Agent, Art Keller.  Keller is forced to resume his drugs-busting role, following a lengthy period of self-imposed hibernation, after his nemesis, Adan Barrera, escapes from prison.  Barrera is seeking to rebuild his drugs empire and power base, which inevitably leads to war between rival families.

If you’ve read The Power of the Dog then The Cartel will feel very familiar, perhaps too familiar.  I found myself thinking this throughout the book but enjoyed the reading experience nonetheless.  One of the highlights of POTD was the blend of characters and the space they had to develop.  The Cartel is consistent here and we find ourselves introduced to a range of new characters.  One of the most interesting developments is the injection of the media and journalists into the unfolding events.  I wonder if Winslow took inspiration here from the TV series The Wire, season five of which looked at Baltimore’s drug epidemic through the lens of a fictional newspaper.  In bringing the lives of journalists into the story, Winslow portrays the pressure journalists are under in reporting drugs related news; where gangs want their rivals portrayed in the worst light and will threaten journalists and their families to achieve this end.  This is a familiar theme in The Cartel, where we find politicians, the army, police and other branches of the state and society facing the same issues confronting journalists, if not more so.  In this regard, The Cartel feels like a more insightful work than its predecessor.

The Cartel doesn’t let up on the action of the first novel either.  In fact, if memory serves, The Cartel feels more ‘action-packed’, largely driven by the fact that one of the rival gangs, The Zetas, is essentially a special forces outfit.

Winslow notes in the acknowledgements section of the book that while a work of fiction, the events in The Cartel are inspired by actual events.  In the days since finishing The Cartel I’ve noticed a few stories in the press which bear Winslow out.  On 23 December, Reuters reported that Murders in Mexico are the highest since records began, with a staggering total of 23,101 murder investigations opened in the first 11 months of 2017 alone.  The BBC reported on 20 December that a Mexican journalist was shot dead while attending a Christmas celebration at his son’s primary school.  The journalist in question had been under state protection because of the high risks of reporting on crime.  Sound familiar?  So it’s in a guarded way that I use the words ‘action-packed’.  In fact, the more one looks into this, the more you realise that The Cartel is closer to reality than you’d like to think.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that The Cartel is a heavy and sometimes brutal book.  Nevertheless, it’s a good read and, like its predecessor, I recommend it to you.

Oh, and Happy New Year!