The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

I’ve been enjoying Don Winslow’s books for several years. Most of them are traditional crime or detective novels and many with a California setting.  I read The Cartel in 2015 and loved it – it also had great reviews and sold well.  Then I realized that The Power of the Dog, published about 10 years prior,  was actually the prequel to The Cartel.  Hmmmm…. I didn’t want to bother for the most part but then … voila … it was on sale.

The Power of the Dog
by Don Winslow
2005/ 560 pages
read by Ray Porter – 20h 13m
rating:  A +

This is good – it just doesn’t have the impact for me that The Cartel did.  These are the earlier years of Art Keller and his hunt for Adán Barrera who is loosely modeled after “El Chapo,”  Juan Guzman.   I really wish I’d read them in order because I feel like I already know how the story ends (although El Chapo might escape again any day – he’s due for deportation/extradition to the US for trial).

Opening with an especially gruesome scene, The Power of the Dog continues with almost steadily increasing graphic sex and brutal violence, as well as love and betrayal,  which includes the drug dealers,  the cops of all levels,  government officials,  prostitutes, wives, mothers,  children, priests and all manner of people.  It’s about money, sex, drugs,  violence and the truth about the war on drugs. So beware Gentle Reader,  because this is the Godfather on crank.

In some ways it’s a true story – based on a true story anyway.  And it’s based on the  long true story of the drug lord territorial wars between the 1970s to 2005 and taking place all over Central America with a few scenes in New York and California.   From what I understand,  Winslow did an incredible amount of research for the two books,  The Power of the Dog and Cartel.  And he’s fed up with the incredibly expensive war on drugs so this book has a fair amount of polemic – not too much though.

The characters involved become obsessed with “the business,”  the money, the women, the power so their place in it,  whether they are cops or dealers,  major players or part of the entourage is paramount.   Super aggressive competition and the lowest forms of corruption are rampant.  Money buys whatever or whomever it wants and they don’t much use for disloyalty – or perceived disloyalty.  Some of the characters spend their whole lives in this business, making money,  their names,  becoming as powerful as they can, and dying.  But loving people sometimes makes them vulnerable.

The are many characters because there were lots of drug lords and wanna-be drug lords and viscous wars for dominance. There was also lots of US involvement from various agencies, DEA, FBI, CIA.   Even the upper echelons of the Catholic Church is involved. (!)  At first it’s a bit  hard to tell who is who and on which side they play (if not both),   but after awhile that straighten itself out as the main characters continue to grow their businesses or go after their targets.

The major theme is how the “war” on drugs was a wasted effort and the drug lords, with all their money and corruption and violence,  won while the US efforts became seriously corrupt.  And it gets more political than that,  according to the novel,  NAFTA sunk the Mexican middle class (because big money bought the land where they could now grow lots of stuff and ship to the US very cheaply).   US enforcement is a corrupt joke,  etc.  Drug lords have families,  law enforcement folks have families, there’s too much money and sex and everyone is scared.  So too many people have been killed while too many addicts have died.  But this is the reality of our world,  so it’s nonfiction in part,  because more “product” flows into the US daily from a poor country just over a basically unprotected border where the worst of thugs fight it out for control.

Bottom line if you think you’ll appreciate, or at least get past, the level of violence I strongly recommend you read this book first and then get on with The Cartel.  (And I loved The Cartel – it seemed like Winslow hit his stride with that one.)

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