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book review

A corrupt cop. A dead drug dealer. A cache of heroin. A city on fire. A rash of hard-boiled staccato sentences written. Just. Like This.

If any of those elements sound appealing, then you should immediately pick up a copy of The Force, Don Winslow's testosterone-fuelled rampage into the filthiest version of New York you will ever encounter, save a time-machine trip back to 42nd Street circa 1977. Junkies, gangsters, killers and crooks – they all mingle merrily in Winslow's vision of the Big Apple, rotten to the core but easy enough to take a bite of all the same. It's nostalgia crossed with nausea and delivered with such a furious blast of intimacy – this is Winslow's city, not yours, and if you think you know it better then him, you can go to hell – that it cannot help but suck in even the most jaded crime reader.

Take this passage from The Force's opening pages, where Winslow makes his messy relationship with the city or at least his vision of a 21st-century New York, abundantly clear: "A strong wind finds its way through every crack, into the project stairwells, the tenement heroin mills, the social club back rooms, the new-money condos, the old-money penthouses … if there was a secret Da Force didn't know about, it was because it hadn't been whispered about or even thought of yet." One sentence later and he's onto rhapsodizing, complete with olfactory triggers, the various slices of vice being carved out over plates of "smothered jerk chicken or jerk pork or pasta marinara or gourmet meals at five-star restaurants in a city made from sin and for profit."

That's certainly enough to chew on, and Winslow hasn't even gotten around to spinning his central tale, the rise and fall of NYPD bad boy Denny Malone. Malone is an Irish cop (what else?) wrestling with an ex-wife who may or may not love him, a drug-addict girlfriend who loves to hate him and a police department that tolerates his antics only so long as he delivers the right kickbacks to the right people. It's a dangerous life tricked out with enough sharp, rusty edges to fashion a jailhouse shiv, but Winslow places us into Malone's orbit with more grace and ease than any of his characters come close to displaying in their daily lives. Lives, it should be noted that revolve around assault, sexual exploitation, robbery, blackmail and murder. All crimes committed with the courtesy of a badge. You know: fidelis ad mortem.

Winslow, best known for his jaw-dropping drug tales The Cartel, The Power of the Dog and Savages (don't hold that Oliver Stone adaptation against him) is clearly having the time of his life here. Abandoning the more measured language and structure of his previous work for an all-out assault of vulgarity, doled out in rapid-fire bursts, Winslow channels everyone from Raymond Chandler to David Mamet – although not before cutting them all with an amphetamine-like cadence that is as addictive as it is genuinely ridiculous. (It's no great surprise to hear that Mamet, especially the Mamet we know and fear today, is eyeing a big-screen adaptation.)

Yet, if you consider yourself a fan of the genre trappings Winslow is exploiting here – mean streets, meaner cops and palms so greasy you can feel the slick sweat every time you flip the page – a good deal of The Force will fail to shock you. Hell, it might even seem extraordinarily familiar. Such was the strong head-whack of déjà vu that hit me as I quickly thumbed my way through Winslow's world. A touch of Bad Lieutenant here, a pinch of The Wire over there, a sprinkle of Training Day and a salty dash of Serpico. Oh, and all topped with a thick, creamy layer of The Shield.

While Winslow has made a point of saying how much research he did with members of the NYPD for The Force, an effort I don't doubt for a second, it is remarkable how much Malone's story echoes that of The Shield's Vic Mackey, the most recent anti-hero cop to capture the cultural imagination. Mackey, as played by human cannonball Michael Chiklis, was introduced in FX's The Shield as a rogue task-force cop who ripped off drug dealers, murdered potential snitches and was forced to clean up his act under the guise of a new by-the-book captain. Winslow's Malone, meanwhile, is a rogue task-force cop who rips off drug dealers, murders a potential snitch and is forced to polish his image when a new by-the-book captain comes into his precinct. The Mackey-Malone similarities only compound as The Force unfolds, to the point where you could imagine Mackey throwing Winslow's paperback to the ground, incredulous that Malone would dare imitate him so blatantly.

Perhaps Winslow's crooked-cop narrative is just so intertwined with the genre's DNA that similarities are inevitable. Maybe that's even the point. Whatever the case, the Malone-Mackey coincidences end up being relatively small concerns when weighed against Winslow's propulsive prose and dangerously seductive portrait of immorality. Start running the shower now – you'll want to feel clean after getting so very dirty.

Jeff Lemire says he worked on his new graphic novel Roughneck at the same time as the Gord Downie project, Secret Path. The illustrator says “Roughneck” addresses themes of violence and addiction in indigenous communities.

The Canadian Press

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