Wednesday 16 November 2016

Detective fiction: just how dark can it go?

We’re deep in the darkness this week, focussing exclusively on the grimmer end of the crime fiction spectrum. In that vein, I’ll be reviewing David Pinner’s famous horror/thriller of the 1960s, RITUAL – which eventually hit the cinemas as THE WICKER MAN. In addition to that, I’m going to repost a blog I wrote for the A LOVER OF BOOKS website back in September, when they asked me the following intriguing question:


Before we can answer this question, we need to remember that detective fiction is a pretty broad church, ranging from the pastoral-flavoured subgenre of the village green murder mystery to the ultra-violent world of inner city cops and the heinous criminals they pursue.

But by the nature of the beast, I think we must expect that it will always have the potential to get pretty dark. The bedrock of modern detective fiction for me is still the Hardboiled genre, as pioneered by the likes of Hammett and Chandler, and in which cynical antiheroes walk tightropes through worlds of crime and corruption.

Even back then in the more censorious 20s, 30s and 40s, our fictional investigators found themselves confronting the dregs of humanity, encountering contract killers, incest, rape, drug addiction, child abuse, sex slavery, domestic brutality – the whole gamut of social ills that still make us shudder when we’re watching the newsreels today.

It’s one of those difficult areas, I guess. In most cases, people read as a form of recreation, and therefore we authors write as a form of entertainment. But can it ever be morally acceptable to dredge through the most miserable of human experiences so that others can have fun?

The answer to that must be that we all live in the real world, and that we writers would be short-changing our readers if we tried to pretend that this wasn’t the case. It would be like telling a war story without the violence, or writing about the Third World as if there was no poverty or disease.

But the question still stands. How dark can you go?

Well … I’ve seen it done superbly well at the extreme limits of the spectrum. If you look at the world of horror novels rather than thrillers, some amazing examples stand out: THE WOLFEN (1978) by Whitley Strieber, in which two New York detectives hunt for an apparent cannibal killer and gradually come to realise they are tracking a werewolf pack; and LEGION (1983) by William Peter Blatty, in which a time-served cop investigates a series of appalling torture murders in Georgetown, only to find that he’s dealing with Satanic ritual. Neither of these books stint on the horror, but such is the skill and intensity with which they are told, that they are basically unputdownable.

In these cases, of course, the supernatural element is likely to
alleviate any concerns one might have about excessive gruesomeness and depravity, because that earmarks these works as fantasy, which means that not only is it not real, but that it’s not supposed to be real.

We authors are on slightly dodgier ground when we are purporting to tell stories that could easily be true.

For example, when I sat down to write STALKERS, my first DS Heckenburg novel, in 2012, I wondered if the idea of the Nice Guys Club, a crime syndicate who for big money would provide clients with rape victims of their choice, belonged more in a horror novel than a crime thriller. It seemed a very extreme notion. However, at the time, and despite my prior police experience, I truly had no idea how much sex trafficking there is in the world, how much torture-for-fun, how many Snuf movies are made. It soon transpired that I had no need to worry about my risky concept, because it was only representing one harrowing aspect of real life.

I think that’s why I’ve tackled my latest novel, STRANGERS – another potentially controversial one – in full-on fashion. This one is a no-holds-barred tale of the hunt by undercover policewomen for a female killer known to the press as Jill the Ripper, who preys on her johns and sexually mutilates them.

We’ve all seen TV dramas in which female detectives go under cover as prostitutes, and it’s often treated lightly, as if all the heroine needs to do is don a short skirt and stand sexily on the nearest street-corner. However, I’ve seen enough of it in real life to know that this is far more difficult and dangerous work than that. And after extensive discussions with fellow author and good friend of mine, ASH CAMERON, who as a long-serving policewoman in the Met, performed this duty many times, I felt I had a duty to paint as realistic a picture as possible of this grim business.

So … I make no apologies for the grimy subways or dingy toilet blocks, for the vomit in the gutters, the needles in the back-streets, the abuse the girls suffer from their punters, the violence from the pimps and dealers, the thrown excrement, and so forth.

Yes, I suspect STRANGERS is the darkest crime novel I’ve ever written, but no – because of the desperate state of some of our real lives – I don’t think I, or any other crime writer of my acquaintance, has even come close to pushing the boundaries towards unacceptability thus far.

You think crime writing’s gone dark? You ain’t seen nothing yet.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

RITUAL by David Pinner (1967)

In the late 1960s, the Cornish coastal village of Thorn is rocked when a young girl, Dian Spark, turns up dead at the foot of an ancient oak tree, apparently murdered in ritualistic fashion. But when idealistic young police detective, David Hanlin, is sent to investigate, he finds that he has entered a world apart.

It is a hot and beautiful summer and Thorn is a remote community, but this is not the picture-postcard Cornwall that we all know and love.

To begin with, the village itself is in a poor state, dull and impoverished, many of its buildings decayed, while the villagers themselves are odd and unfriendly. Mrs Spark, Dian’s bereaved mother, is a sultry but mysterious presence, courting a reputation for witchcraft and yet on the surface strongly opposed to the ancient rites that she is convinced caused the death of her youngest daughter. Her older daughter on the other hand, Anna – a seductive beauty and wannabe nymphomaniac – captivates Hanlin with her wanton ways, though, as he’s of a puritanical inclination, he also finds her revolting.

Other characters in the village are no less awkward to deal with for the out-of-place copper. Pastor White, the vicar, is patently mad. The penniless squire, Francis Fenn, plays bizarre flute music all day – badly, while out in the woods a homeless weirdo known only as Gypo provides a brawny and threatening presence. Meanwhile, at the rotten heart of the village sits retired local actor Lawrence Cready, an insufferably pompous and camp fellow, who occupies the manor house with his gay man-servant, Martin, and engages in strange and inappropriate games with Thorn’s resident tribe of rumbustious, urchin-like children.

We’ve already touched on Hanlin’s puritanical streak, and this soon becomes a key factor. Ever more certain that satanic practices are at play – especially as we draw closer to Midsummer Eve, for which some kind of secret celebration has clearly been planned – he throws his weight around with increasing anger and righteousness, ignoring the instructions of his superiors back in London, bullying some of the villagers and attempting unsuccessfully to make allies out of others. All the time he suspects that elaborate psychological games are being played with him, and yet, despite the occasional clues he finds and the air of decadence pervading the village (which also extends to the youngsters) he is unable to unearth any hard evidence.

When another child is murdered, Hanlin finally starts to realise that he’s out of his depth. His physical aversion to strong sunlight hampers him, the sensual Anna is a constant distraction – even he is becoming aware that his own bigotries are leading him to snap and fallacious judgements – and he feels increasingly tired and disoriented. The only remaining option, it seems, is to stick around for Midsummer Eve, to try and catch the malefactors in the act of their profanities …

The first thing to say about this one-time infamous novel of the occult from celebrated actor and playwright David Pinner, is that it provided a kind of unofficial basis for The Wicker Man, which hit the cinemas six years later. It was not an easy translation from page to screen, however. Though Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy allegedly co-purchased the rites to Ritual in 1971, the story goes that they ultimately found it unfilmable and so screenwriter Anthony Shaffer created his own macabre tale based only very loosely on the original. Some vague similarities are present: the lone policeman investigating an isolated village drenched in esoteric lore; in the midst of it all a controlling and sophisticated man with entirely ignoble motives; and the tauntingly desirable landlord’s daughter, who in the most memorable moment in the book – one scene at least which made it to the film virtually unchanged – dances naked against her bedroom wall, driving her lonely male target on the other side almost crazy with lust.

However, there are also significant differences. The book does not end the way the movie ends, and though Hanlin is unhealthily obsessed with his own cleanliness and upright character, he gives little indication of devout religious belief. There is also more menace in the village of Thorn than we found on Summerisle; no one makes any effort to be reasonable with Hanlin, everyone he encounters demanding that he leave, while several of the oddballs who populate the place, rather than living comfortably in their strange, secluded world, are clearly on the verge of insanity.

But enough said about The Wicker Man. At the end of the day, that was a completely different animal, and now has legendary status its own right. In comparison, Ritual has largely been forgotten, but it is nevertheless a curious book and bit of a mixed bag.

Pinner’s poetic style and ornate language occasionally feels out-of-date in the 21st century. The ‘moral’ stance has worn badly too. While the corruption of youth through sensual pagan practises understandably horrifies Hanlin and is a precursor to our modern-age zero tolerance of child abuse, he also takes issue with Cready and Martin simply because they are homosexual, and at the same time, while massively turned on by village minx, Anna, he also wants to beat her for her wickedness – not much of a reconstructed man, then, David Hanlin.

There are other problems with the novel too. The portrayal of lackadaisical police procedures is pretty ludicrous, even by the standards of the rural 1960s. And I wasn’t entirely convinced by Hanlin’s methods of detection – there was a little too much instinct and not nearly enough deduction for my liking. But in truth none of this really matters. I was very glad to get hold of Ritual. It was a famous book at the time and has been long out of print, and once I dug into it, my various complaints notwithstanding, I still found it a compelling read.

There are genuine mysteries here, and a growing sense of fear as the clock ticks steadily down to the big event of the summer. But it’s also subtly done. With two children murdered, it would be difficult for anyone to argue there is nothing wrong with this place, but very little of it falls into Hanlin’s lap; there are times when even he wonders if he is imagining the witchery he relentlessly hunts. Hanlin himself makes an unusual hero – I wouldn’t say you empathise with him much, but he strikes an effectively forlorn figure as he battles the largely unseen forces of evil. I also rather liked Anna. The hooker with the heart of gold is something of a cliché in thriller fiction, but Anna is altogether deeper and more complex than that, and makes a mischievous and sympathetic foil to Hanlin’s humourless Cromwellian.  

Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read, recommended for those who enjoy a touch of blatantly old-fashioned occult horror (and aren’t too worried about a distinct absence of political correctness).

I usually like to end these book reviews with a bunch of actors I personally would cast if the tale in question ever made it to the screen. Well, I venture to suggest that the original Wicker Man is probably the closest that Ritual will ever get to that. But just for laughs – it’s always for laughs of course – here are my picks should Ritual (as oppose to TWM) ever get the full celluloid treatment: 

DI David Hanlin – Kit Harrington
Anna Spark – Lily Collins
Squire Francis Fenn – Freddie Jones
Lawrence Cready – Ian McKellen
Pastor White – John Hurt
Mrs Spark – Minnie Driver

Thursday 3 November 2016

Sad losses, big gains: life on the book trail

There is all sorts to talk about this week, some of it exciting, some of it rather sad. We’ll be discussing book festivals, both past and future, and also, because we’re back on the crime trail today, as oppose to the horror trail, where we were last week, I’ll be reviewing Don Winslow’s epic gangster saga, THE CARTEL, which I think I can safely say is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. If you’re keen to get to that book review quickly, you’ll find it, as usual, at the lower end of this blogpost.

A quick word first about the literary festivals – in a nutshell, I’m very flattered to have been invited as a guest to this year’s CHORLTON BOOK FESTIVAL, in Manchester, but I’ll also be chatting today about MORD AM HELLWEG VIII, in Germany, which I attended, also as a guest, last weekend; that was a truly remarkable experience.

However, before we get to all that, if you can spare me a minute and forgive a personal indulgence, I’d like to pay tribute to a friend and colleague who passed away quite recently after a difficult illness at the far-too-young age of 70.

On October 25 this year, quite unexpectedly, we lost the lovely and astonishingly talented CAROLE BLAKE.

As co-founder of the BLAKE FRIEDMANN LITERARY AGENCY in London, who have represented me for most of my professional writing life, and have been hugely involved in steering my professional career from its humble beginnings to the bestseller status I’m fortunate enough to enjoy today, Carole was a very significant person in my life, but she had a family too, and many, many close friends, not least her colleagues down at the Agency, who are all understandably devastated by this event.

A legend in the publishing industry, Carole achieved an awful lot in her life. She wasn’t just a powerhouse literary agent, representing such fine writers as Barbara Erskine, Peter James, Julian Stockwin and Anne de Courcy, she was a best-selling author in her own right, penning FROM PITCH TO PUBLICATION: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW TO GET YOUR NOVEL PUBLISHED, which is regarded as a seminal work and is now in its 19th reprinting. She was also president of the Association of Authors’ Agents, second female chair of the Society of Bookmen, and chairman of BTBS, the Book Trade Charity, on whose board she served for 11 years.

An arch-professional and a huge personality, Carole’s loss will be felt for a very long time. I can only say that I am deeply honoured to have known her, and very lucky to have been within her sphere of influence.


The annual CHORLTON BOOK FESTIVAL, a celebration of reading and writing – not just locally to Manchester, but from around the world – is a truly amazing event, which is now in its 12th year. Chorlton is famously regarded as ‘Manchester’s most literary suburb’, and many big-name authors have attended this festival since its inception. So I was massively flattered to get the call for 2016.

The festival will take place at Chorlton Library between 18-26 November. It won’t just be about me, of course. Other authors due to attend – and this is quite a line-up, I’m sure you’ll agree – include mega-selling crime writer, RACHEL ABBOTT (pictured right), rising star and horror novelist ANDREW MICHAEL HURLEY, eclectic performer ROSIE GARLAND (pictured above) and poet DAVID MORLEY.

I myself will participate on Saturday November 19, from 7pm. Again this will be at Chorlton Library. I’m not exactly sure what form it will take – either a reading (from the next Heck novel perhaps?) and questions, or just a good old chinwag with both the moderator and the audience – but put it this way, I’ll be there for at least an hour and a half, more likely two (and there will be drinks as well). So if you fancy popping in, please do.

For full details of the week-long programme, check HERE.

Hoping to see some of you there.


And now for a literary festival that has already been and gone, but what an astonishing experience it was.

A few of you will probably know that my novels have been translated into German by the top German publishing house, PIPER VERLAG. Sales have been great, and I’ve periodically been the recipient of emailed photographs taken in bus shelters and railway stations in cities as far apart as Munich, Frankfurt and Berlin, which show my face adorning massive billboards. This is always a surreal experience because, admirer though I am of German culture, up until this year it’s a country I’d only ever visited once – fleetingly, during a backpacking holiday in 1984. As such, when I received an invitation from Piper to travel over there this autumn, and spend two nights in their company, attending two separate literary festivals, firstly Mord am Hellweg VIII in Hagen, and secondly the Piper Crime Night in Darmstadt, I was a little apprehensive.

Like so many complacent English folk, I’ve neglected a study of foreign languages – in short, I have no German whatsoever – plus, I didn’t know the country.

What I didn’t anticipate, though, was that when I finally got over there last weekend, none of this would prove to be any kind of obstacle at all – courtesy of my publishers.

Piper are a major force in German publishing, and produce some truly gorgeous books, mine included. On top of that, they treated me like royalty. Cathy, my wife, and I were chaperoned the entire time we were there, from our arrival at Frankfurt airport on the Saturday to our departure on the Monday, by Piper Publicity and Events Manager, Jana Remus, who didn’t just steer us through the complexities of the German railway and taxi systems, she also arranged and re-arranged bookings, and was always available to provide a translation if it was needed (though it rarely was, the Germans speaking English as well as they do).

I can’t express how grateful I am to Piper for taking care of all this. Every single potential cause of stress was removed from the trip, leaving nothing but a thoroughly enjoyable experience, which, unsurprisingly given that it was made in Germany, ran like clockwork.

The events themselves were as good as any I’ve ever been involved with.

Mord am Hellweg, which is a huge celebration of modern crime-writing (apparently the biggest in Europe), had a real international feel from the outset. I was on stage the same evening as Swedish novelist and screenwriter FREDRIK T. OLSSON (left), Israeli crime writer DROR MISHANI (below), and Irish novel-writing team, Karen Gillece and Paul Perry, who work under the joint-name of KAREN PERRY (and what a very cool bunch of people all these folk turned out to be).

There were literally hundreds in the audience, so many in fact that the organisers had to divide the punters at the Hagen Arts Centre into two different groups, one upstairs and one down (we then alternated between the two). 

For my own part, I provided brief readings from HUNTED, recently published in Germany as TOTENSPIELER, which were translated by the very able and rather delightful journalist and moderator, Margarete von Schwarzkopf, again not that I think any translation was really needed - the German audience responded in positive and lively fashion while I was on the microphone.

To make it slightly easier for them, however, a second and much longer reading from HUNTED was then performed by FRITZ ECKENGA, a German actor, author and poet of considerable renown.

This was pretty mesmerising. I reiterate that I don’t speak German, but Fritz (right) has the most amazingly rich and resonant voice, and he read the passage beautifully, making it sound magical. He later confided in me that he first determined to learn English after hearing Ken Branagh read some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which he didn’t understand at the time but the sound of which completely entranced him. After being so enthralled by Fritz’s own musical delivery, I knew exactly what he meant.

The second night was equally rewarding. This time, though it was officially the Piper Crime Night, we were guests of The Bookstore in Darmstadt, a large independent operation whose owner, Alfred Hofmann, regularly hosts literary events in his hometown. As before, it was hugely well-attended, and once again, when I read in English, I gauged very quickly from the audience that they understood near-enough every word. During the Q&A, translations were provided by local crime author and all-round top bloke, MICHAEL KIBLER, who made a very entertaining dinner guest afterwards.

I was also honoured in Darmstadt to share the stage with GISA KLONNE (left), who is regarded as one of Germany’s leading crime-writers. Again, what a lovely lady and, afterwards, a fabulous raconteur.

One of the nicest things any author can experience, I think, is to attend a literary event and feel appreciated. That may sound like an obvious thing to say; it may even sound conceited, but when you’re invited to one of these things, and find only a handful of people there or detect an air of indifference when you’re making your address, it can be very dispiriting. That doesn’t happen often, but just happening once, it can be a huge blow to your morale. I must stress, by the way, that wanting a positive reaction at one of these festivals is not about some desire to be worshipped or idolised. It just means that you’re facing a bunch of people who have connected with your writing, and that’s really all you can ever hope for if you write to be published.

I felt this connection strongly last weekend in Germany. I spoke to so many people who were not just friendly and welcoming, but who were intimately familiar with my work; I must have signed dozens of books on both nights.

It’s easily the farthest I’ve ever travelled on a book-tour, and yet it is probably the most gratifying one I’ve done to date. I owe a huge debt of thanks to Jana and all the staff at Piper who made it possible, and of course to the organisers of Mord am Hellweg, who included Astrid Knoche and Antje Deistler as well as those I’ve already mentioned (please forgive me, guys, if any name has slipped my memory), and to Herr Hofmann and his wife for making us feel equally welcome at their event in Darmstadt (and for afterwards giving me an exceptional present, a bottle of locally-made malt whiskey, which – believed it or not – is named FINCH).

The two images depicting racks of my books on sale in Germany, while taken in Frankfurt, do not come to us from last weekend, but were taken at the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier last month. Thanks to Helen Hurthwaite from Avon Books at HarperCollins, for sending these through to me.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE CARTEL by Don Winslow (2015)

In 2004, former DEA man Art Keller is a burnt-out wreck after decades of war with the Mexican drugs cartels. Having survived to middle age, and having lost his wife on the way and witnessed the torture and murder of his partner, he now lives in self-imposed exile, working as a bee-keeper at a remote monastery. His days of conflict are over. He’s had enough of the rest of the world.

But then disaster strikes.

His former enemy and leading drugs lord, Adan Barrera, after serving a short prison sentence that was more like a holiday, secures his freedom and commences where he left off with the aid of Magda, his intelligent ex-beauty queen wife, expanding and strengthening El Federacion, a huge but brittle alliance of Mexico’s most powerful and merciless dope gangs.

Keller knows his retirement is over.

Initially it’s a matter of being realistic. Barrera has put a huge bounty on Keller’s head. If the former agent doesn’t strike first, his life won’t be worth living. But the moment he gets back into the saddle, it all comes boiling to the surface: the hatred, the fury, the desire for revenge. Within no time, it’s as though Keller has never been out of the service – and the game is back on.

What follows is a ten-year cat and mouse game between two wily, determined individuals who detest each other. On paper, Barrera is far the stronger. He has El Federacion behind him, and a virtual army of gun-toting narcos and sicarios. Keller, by contrast, has a less-than-reliable network of nervous informers and untrustworthy US and Mexican bureaucrats. But Keller also has his skills and his wits, not to mention good contacts among rival syndicates. It isn’t difficult for him to create in-fighting and factionalism. Not that he needs to do this on his own. Because in response to Barrera’s return, the so-called Zetas have emerged under Heriberto Ochoa: a chillingly ruthless paramilitary mob which, while Barrera mainly peoples his organisation with gunmen drawn from the barrios and backstreets, is itself composed of former spec ops soldiers, who will wage a campaign of total annihilation to achieve their ends.

The resulting civil war in the Mexican underworld is almost too horrifying to believe, the Zetas in particular stopping at nothing to terrorise their opponents, not just shooting them, but decapitating, burning, dismembering and burying them alive – and on an industrial scale. Strings of the most incredibly heinous murders occur right in front of our eyes, the victims including men, women and children. While Keller watches, helpless, the appalling violence spreads all across Mexico, engulfing the ordinary population, wiping out entire districts, shocking the country to its core, paralysing it with fear.

Many events in The Cartel are based on real historical incidents, which in the mid-2000s transformed Mexico from a Spring Break paradise to a no-go war zone. But for the most part this is a fictionalised account. Most of the characters Keller encounters come from Winslow’s imagination, but they also serve a valid purpose. Among the villains, ‘Crazy’ Eddie Ruiz began life as the all-American boy, but got drawn into trafficking while still young, naïve and ambitious enough to think he could make it pay – and once in, of course, he found there was no way out. While Chuy, better known as ‘Jesus the Kid’, is a hollowed-out shell of a human being, a slum child so horribly abused that he makes the perfect killer for the crime bosses (and is a genuinely frightening presence, so coldly does he obey their monstrous orders). On the goodies’ side meanwhile, the journalist, Pablo – an everyday family man, who bravely reports on the horrors of the dope war, is representative of the many real life Mexican journalists who were murdered (131 of whom are referenced in the book in a sobering dedication list). Likewise, the moralistic Doctor Marisol Cisneros is much more here than Keller’s love-interest; she is the female face of Mexico’s innocent population, the wife/mother figure we’ve seen in so many conflicts of this type, who fearlessly expresses outrage at the atrocities and contempt for the madmen raping her homeland.

All of these heroes risk the most terrible reprisals, but ultimately, as Keller knows, the sad truth is that good people standing up for their right to live safe lives, will not be enough to win this war. His feud with Adan Barrera has become personal, and Keller is determined to take him down, no matter what it costs …

Where to start with The Cartel, except to say that it’s far more than a mere crime novel.

I mean, it is a crime novel. It’s probably one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read; an epic, awe-inspiring tale of one man’s non-stop war against a criminal organisation who, despite the colossal resources thrown at it, remains virtually unassailable, and how, in the process and because he’s already lost everything he values in life, he is brutalised beyond recognition, changing from a well-intentioned, justice-driven lawman into a remorseless, rule-breaking avenger.

But it’s also much, much more even than this.

Though it’s officially a sequel to Winslow’s previous gangster masterpiece, Power of the Dog, it won’t spoil your enjoyment to start here, because The Cartel is really the big brother of the two novels. It casts an enormous wide-angle lens on the entire tragedy that is Mexico in the era of the drugs wars, not just depicting the syndicates in all their gaudy, gory, soulless, nihilistic, wicked-beyond-belief glory, but also holding to account those government officials and business czars in both Mexico and the US who have kowtowed to them through fear or greed, and slamming the US in particular for a schizophrenic approach to hard drugs, which sees it on one hand spending billions of dollars to try and halt the flow of narcotics across the border, and on the other, through its everyday citizens, spending at least the same amount in efforts to acquire these substances and with no apparent awareness of the ghastly human cost.

Don’t for one minute assume the ‘Cartel’ the book’s title is referring to is El Federacion. Not a bit of it; in this novel, and clearly in the reality Don Winslow has so carefully and painstakingly researched, the blame for this ceaseless whirlwind of atrocities goes way, way further than that.

As such, it’s a true nightmare scenario, a gargantuan genocidal mess, which the author examines in unstinting and forensic detail. There is little-to-nothing that will uplift you in these 640 corpse-strewn, gunfire-riddled pages. It’s often heartbreakingly sad, and not just because of the endless massacres and executions of the innocent, harrowing stuff though these scenes are – one appalling and pointless slaughter of a bus-load of itinerant workers who have simply strayed into the wrong place is enough to freeze the blood – but it’s the whole calamity of a country once not just famous for its beautiful landscapes and wonderful climate, but also for its vibrant culture and artistry, its architecture and literary tradition, being utterly consumed by a crime-wave which explodes in all directions and without limit, by bloody wars that never end, and by what in truth amounts to wholesale, home-grown, fully militarised ultra-terrorism rather than traditional organised crime.

In the midst of this maelstrom, the ordinary Mexican people, and all the fictional characters who figurehead them, are dragged from pillar to post, battered, beaten and broken down, and yet everyman figures like Marisol the country doctor and Pablo the weary journalist remain defiant, exemplifying courage and common decency, doing everything they can to oppose the banditos and at the same time remain alive. Such is the skill of Winslow’s detailed and emotional story-telling that you get totally sucked in, becoming progressively more terrified for them (not to mention for everyone else – literally, no-one is safe in this book).

If you think this sounds like a glimpse of Hell, you’re basically right. However, there is some light to be had. Art Keller is the embittered focal point of the story, but he makes for an excellent central character. He’s not a young man. He’s tired and careworn, but he’s an expert in his field and a wheeler-dealer from way back, and his fatalistic obsession now is to spend whatever remains of his life hunting down Adan Barrera. This makes him a formidable foe for a crime syndicate who are not used to being nervous about anything, and each time he’s on the page you feel more than a pang of hope that, if anyone can pull this impossible task off, it’s Keller. But he’s a flawed hero for sure, using every trick in the book, both legal and otherwise: making and breaking alliances as it suits him; infiltrating the mob; undermining and double-crossing them; bribing the corruptible; turning former friends into enemies; indulging, if necessary, in the most murderous violence.

By comparison, his nemesis, Barrera, is not the demented monster you might expect. In fact, in contrast to the uber-vicious Ochoa, he’s remarkably restrained, running his world with a rod of iron, but a diplomat as well as a general, clever and ruthless but a suave fellow who values family life when he’s allowed to have it. He’s like the CEO of a large company rather than a gang boss, though again such is the skill with which he is drawn by Winslow, such are the subtle undercurrents of menace in Barrera’s urbane persona, that you’ve no doubt he’ll pull the trigger on anyone and everyone if the situation demands it.

Overall, The Cartel is more of an experience than a novel. For such a massive book, the pace rattles along – I read it in about three days – and that isn’t just down to the intensity of the shoot-outs or the horror of the murders and massacres; the complex judicial and political scene is also handled deftly, the labyrinthine dealings of all those involved in the dope game, even those not on the frontline of violence, are analysed from every angle, and yet it’s all done quickly and accessibly. There are literally dozens of characters, and yet every one remains vivid in the reader’s eye, proving easily and immediately recognisable.

The most negative comment I’ve read from any reviewer on the subject of The Cartel is that it’s ‘sprawling’. Well … it is. But that’s because it’s a genuine, bona fide epic. James Ellroy described it as “the ‘War and Peace’ of the dope wars”. I can’t argue with that. It’s grim, dark-hearted stuff, but at the same time it remains an amazing feat of crime/thriller literature. 

At the end of these reviews, just for the fun of it, I usually name the cast I would pick if this book was ever to hit our screens. Apparently, a TV version of The Cartel has been in development for some time now, but I’ve seen nothing solid yet, so here, as always, are my picks for who should play the lead characters:

Art Keller – Leonardo DiCaprio
Adan Barrera – Benicio del Toro
Marisol – Sophia Vergara
Magda – Eiza Gonzalez
Pablo – Jesse Garcia
‘Crazy’ Eddie Ruiz – James Marsden
Heriberto Ochoa – Joaquin Cosio