When copping it sweet is the wrong call
American crime writer Don Winslow has attracted some of the most hyperbolic reviews in literary history for The Force, his internationally bestselling, painfully predictable police procedural. Pulitzer prize-winner David Mamet is in talks to write a film adaptation. The rights went for millions. James Mangold, signed on to direct the film, describes the book as “a beacon of fierce originality … and blunt masculine poetry”. Rival crime writer Lee Child thinks it is “positively Shakespearean”. Even Stephen King weighed in: “mesmerising, a triumph”.
All of which made me wonder if we’d read the same book because after 50 pages I started wishing someone would murder the protagonist so it would end.
In general, the depiction of detectives has degraded since the golden age of crime writing. The impact of semi-documentary films and television cannot be underestimated in this literary erosion, resulting in an epidemic of novels that read like vaguely fleshed-out scripts. Typically, the first seven paragraphs of The Force consist of a single sentence each. “A hero cop. / The son of a hero cop. / A veteran sergeant in the NYPD’s most elite unit. / The Manhattan North Special Task Force.” This is comic book haiku. Raymond Chandler, whom Winslow venerates, was a rich, funny, ironic and poetic prose stylist, but Winslow is sentimental and derivative. He lets the genre do the heavy lifting.
The “dirty cop” antihero is Denny Malone, a hard-boiled, drug-taking, divorced Irish-American detective: “I’ve taken more real bad guys off the street than cancer, and it’s my team that keeps the lid on this shithole.” He’s the “king”, “the cop di tutti cops”.
He works in “Da Force” with other stereotypes (emotional Italian, tough attorney). He delivers eulogies on the importance of “family”. He “hates” child molesters. He never welshes on child support. These stopwatch-timed, creaky-floorboard scenes are designed to establish Malone’s gold-plated heart, even though we know he put heroin on the streets.
The Force is cliche-riddled and cliche-driven, a lumbering mass of film noir truisms with a misogyny so offensive, so reflexive, so unfunny that had the same remarks been made of an ethno-religious group, the book would have been blacklisted.
Winslow’s men are described in terms of their character. Malone’s best friend: “Stand-up, old-school guy with a Grill Master apron, an unaccountable taste for Nirvana, Pearl Jam and
Nine Inch Nails, smarter than shit, NNc cla clanging f..king balls, loyal like a do dog, be there for you anywhere an anytime Phil Russo.” Winslow’s wo women are not only reduced to the su sum of their parts but graded on th them. Malone’s ex-wife Sheila has “lo “lost a few pounds, no question. She lo looks good.” Later, he notes that sh she “looks good in a green fleece jac jacket and jeans”. Looking good is ab about the most a wife can hope for.
Russo’s 17-year-old daughter (“(“tallt and leggy and with charcoalblack hair”) w wouldn’t have a chance of winning Miss New York, Malone notes, but she “might” make Miss New Jersey. Her father’s aspirations for her? “I just gotta keep her off the stripper pole.” Malone’s girlfriend Claudette wears a “tight sheath of a white dress that shows off her figure and her dark skin”.
In contrast, a prostitute “wears a tight black dress with a deep decolletage” and brothel workers are “attractive, spoiled girls”, “thousand-dollar pussy”, “gorgeous”. His idea of a compliment? “[N]ot some ratchet you put in a porn film.” Said ratchets, whores and “gumars” are not only interchangeable but essentially inhuman, objects used by male characters to exorcise the tension of being given dialogue that reads like an Elmore Leonard parody (“I’ll assf..k your widow on your coffin until she calls me Papi”). When the men meet, it’s important, life- changing, dramatic; when their wives meet, it’s to put “their heads together in girl talk”.
Lying to women is presented as a necessity; too much truth and “the girls” may start to question the genital hierarchy. The few female characters who do not depend on paternalistic womanisers for their livelihood are variously described as: a “spic c..t” (Paz), “a f..king c..t” (Tenelli), and a “party girl with the sexual voracity of a Roman empress” (Flynn). No confusing pluralism here.
Instead of dedicating The Force to the US law enforcement personnel murdered during the book’s gestation, Winslow might have been better advised to dedicate it to the thousands of girls and women murdered during the same period by men who, like all of its male characters, advocate male sexual entitlement and the normative use of violence to resolve conflict.
A meticulous researcher, Winslow may argue he is simply reflecting police culture, but DH Lawrence, for example, depicted a similarly coarse and misogynistic universe in Sons and Lovers with a degree of insight, subtlety and pathos that humanised every character.
Ultimately, The Force amounts to little more than an endorsement of gender inequality. Its values are encapsulated by a single line: “[He] was a drug slinger, a whoremonger and a woman beater … but he wasn’t … a rat.” latest book is Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution.