'The Force' Is Basically 'Game Of Thrones' With Cops — And That's Pretty Great
"How do you cross the line? Step by step."
Internal monologue is a staple in cop books. There are rules, things you do and things you don't, and if the cop in your cop book can't talk to himself in his own head, how are the readers going to know that he's tortured? That he's a good man going bad (or a bad man going worse)? That he has hopes and dreams that extend beyond these streets and the barrel of this gun?
Don Winslow knows this. In his new novel, The Force, detective sergeant Denny Malone talks to himself a lot. Constantly. Unendingly. His voice is the narrator's voice, commanding all past and all present. There's no trickery here, no multiple POV characters or bloated monologuing. Denny, he's a cop — born to be, bred to be, Staten Island Irish with blue all over his family tree — and his voice is like a short panic run over broken ground. Clipped observations. Single lines. Paragraphs that break so fast your eye trips, falling to the next line (and the next and the next) before you know what's happening.
"How do you cross the line?" Denny asks himself. And then he answers, with perfect, earned truth, "Step by step."
Because Denny is crooked (that's no spoiler). He is decorated, famous, viciously loyal, brutally protective, loves his job and his partners at the Manhattan North Task Force, where he and his boys have been given carte blanche to go after drugs and guns and the people who sell drugs and use guns. He's the face behind the biggest heroin bust in the history of the city — which would've been twice as big if half the product and half the cash hadn't wound up in the possession of Denny and his team. That's retirement money for them, college for their kids. The only problem? Not getting caught.
But forget all that. Everything above? That's just the details. Trust me when I tell you that you gotta read this book not because it's beautiful (it isn't) and not because Winslow is a virtuoso stylist (he isn't) and not because it's one of those Important Books that everyone will be talking about (they will), but because it is just fantastic. Like can't-put-it-down, can't-get-the-voices-out-of-your-head fantastic. An instant classic, an epic, a goddamn Wagner opera with a full cast and buckets of blood and smack and Jameson whiskey.
Except none of that is quite right. I mean, it is all those things, but that's not what makes it most interesting.
Winslow is good, no doubt. He's smart enough to be tricky without looking like he's being tricky. He's clever enough to get away with what is essentially a double prologue (in a universe where, most times, one is too many), but his best trick is a buried, pulsing, live-wire second plot that hums just beneath the surface of the first: The Force is basically Game of Thrones without the dragons. The Wars of the Roses played out with New York City cops and robbers.
An instant classic, an epic, a goddamn Wagner opera with a full cast and buckets of blood and smack and Jameson whiskey.
Hang with me a second here. At many points throughout the novel, Denny Malone is referred to as "the king of Manhattan North." He refers to himself that way, and talks (often, internally and externally) about ruling the streets of his kingdom. The cops have their castles. The bad guys have theirs. There's turf, divvied up between mobsters and gangsters and the police — all of them lords and barons of their territory, ruling with violence, struggling to keep a status quo where everyone earns, everyone eats, and no wars break out.
There's even a scene toward the back third, just before everything starts unraveling toward the bloody, cinematic conclusion, where two groups of furious, heavily-armed cops are meeting for an open-air parlay, and one of them makes a joke, that this is their Runnymede, where King John made peace with rebellious English barons by sealing the Magna Carta. And the joke works because it is absolutely true.
It's a weird thing when you first realize it, brilliant and almost subversive as you watch it play out across the pages. Amid all the drugs and guns and skyscrapers and cop bars, there's this shimmering image of an ancient tale hovering just at the edge of things. Knights and lords. Kings and vassals. A story that is as new and vital as 2017, as the latest police shooting trial, but as old as feudalism.
And that is the thing that makes The Force special: Its reach. Its understanding that those steps we take across the line are not lonely ones at all. Because they have been taken many, many times before.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.