Dense, tense, and gritty: those words largely sum up Don Winslow's graphic exploration of the "war on drugs;" with The Power of the Dog, he has crafted a taut, richly researched thriller that spans thirty years and countless lost lives. In one sense, Winslow's novel reminds me of Traffic, in that it weaves disparate lives together in a tapestry touched by "El poder del perro": The Power of the Dog.
Art Keller is a longtime DEA agent whose dogged pursuit of justice means he occasionally breaks "the rules." Adan Barrera is a charming but lethal drug dealer. Sean Callan is a stone cold killer ready for something new. And Nora Hayden is the whore with the heart of - well, if not gold, at least she has one, and its pretty much in the "right place." In these four characters, Winslow finds his windows into the brutal word of the international drug trade.
As their paths crisscross over thirty years of violence, death, and the ever-present drugs, we see the inevitable coming like a freight train as the action unfolds from Keller's first encounter with Barrera in 1970s Mexico, through the corruption of government officials (in both the U.S. and Mexico) during the 1980s, to a deadly finale on the U.S. border in 1999. Keller, you see, made a mistake at the outset of his career: while posted to Culican, Mexico in the early 1970s, Keller became friends with the Barrera brothers. When it is revealed that their uncle Miguel, a member of the state police, is secretly a drug kingpin, the emotions spewing from a broken friendship form the cruicble for a personal vendetta that will consume decades and destroy lives.
There are a number of things to like about this novel. For one thing, Winslow's research and sense of reality are impeccible; the attention to detail adds to the tension. He veers and shifts between his multiple characters frequently, and the complicated plot and nuanced characters all mean that there is plenty of perspective and even opportunity for reflection amidst the routine (if graphic) violence. Winslow's indictment of the failure of the war on drugs laddles out plenty of blame on many different targets, ultimately identifying the failed policies that essentially preclude success from the outset, even while people keep dying on the streets.