Don Winslow’s new novel The Border is the concluding volume of his blood-soaked trilogy and the final panel in a triptych that portrays with biblical ferocity a modern inferno of drugs and crime, violence and iniquity. As seething and vibrant as a medieval altarpiece, Winslow’s creation even includes avenging angels armed, in this instance, with subpoenas and surveillance tapes that reach all the way to the White House. “[T]he cartel could buy its way into the government of the United States,” the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency realises midway through this novel, “…it’s a matter of blackmail.” It’s also a matter of Manhattan real estate deals and money laundering, of “a cartel in Mexico, and a cartel here at home…coming together” while corrupt politicians turn a blind eye. Consequently, the novel’s climax may be a shootout, but its denouement is a congressional hearing, one in which Art Keller, the hero of this series and now head of the DEA, tells the truth about everything — including his own history of lies and killing — then presses “play” on a tape recording that could bring down a President.
Keller has come a long way from the lethal streets of Ciudad Juarez and the outlaw territory of Sinaloa. But we know from the previous novels in the trilogy – The Power of the Dog and The Cartel – that this ageing rectifier can never escape the past or the fight. A Vietnam War veteran and former DEA agent who subsequently retreated to monastic seclusion, Keller was drawn back to dirty action in The Cartel and now in The Border finds himself confronting old enemies as well as some powerful new ones. “In terms of sheer treachery, backstabbing…pure lethal killing power…the Mexican cartels have nothing on this town,” a U.S. senator warns him. The politician is, of course, bragging about Washington DC where much of the plot’s skullduggery resides. The Border has, however, a lens wider than that of most political thrillers. Divided into five sections – “Memorial,” “Heroin,” “Los Retornados,” “Inauguration,” “Truth” – this expertly constructed narrative swivels gracefully, for all its heft, from Mexico and Guatemala to New York City and Washington DC; from centers of power to hellholes of desperation on both sides of the border. All connected by drugs and money.
“Heroin was our past. It will also be our future,” cartel boss Adan Barrera once memorably proclaimed, and he has been proved right. The multinational narcotics trade is still booming. But Barrera’s reign has ended – Keller murdered him in the previous novel – and now war has broken out among his successors. “You killed the wolf, Keller thinks, and now the coyotes are loose.” In cities along the border, the drug trade “used to be well organized under the Sinaloa monopoly, but now it’s all in play” as former cartel partners muster their Armani-clad death squads and set out to kill each other. Elena Barrera, Rafael Caro, Ivan Esparza, Ricardo Nunez and Eddie Ruiz among others are familiar players from earlier novels. And Winslow, his portraiture skills keener than ever, makes each of these villains convincing and complex, even as he embroils them in a labyrinthine power struggle.
Here a moment can capture a character. When Elena, for example, enlightens a priest reluctant to bury her brother, Adan, by saying, “Look around you, you sanctimonious little prick. That desk you’re sitting behind? We paid for it…The sanctuary, the altar, the pews, the new stained-glass windows? All straight from Adan’s pocket. So I’m not asking you, Padre. I’m telling you.” Or when an equally formidable woman tells the President of the United States why he will have a drug cartel release her kidnapped husband. “I’ll tell every filthy thing,” Nora Hayden threatens, “Look at this face, you slimy son of a bitch. I’ll be a star within seconds…So what’s it going to be?” For Nora is not entirely good, just as Elena is not entirely bad. Despite its title, in The Border there are no comforting dividing lines. Instead there are shadows where smaller battles are fought as the cartel war rages and where Winslow is at his best: on the refugee trail north from Guatemala, in prison with Eddie Ruiz, on the street with Jacqui the addict, or undercover with NYPD detective Bobby Cirello. Each life is evoked with such immediacy and each episode infused with such tension that any one of these overlapping dramas could be a short story. Taken together, dexterously layered and shot through with action, they constitute a triumphant grand finale.