By Hugh MacDonald

The Border

Don Winslow

HarperCollins £20

THERE will be a justifiable clamour to praise the totality of Don Winslow’s trilogy covering the so-called war on drugs between the Mexican cartels and USA law enforcement. The reviews have already evoked comparisons to Tolstoy in The Border’s sweeping narrative and multiplicity of characters.

It is, rather, distinctly Dickensian in its form and purpose. This may seem the oddest of verdicts given that The Border is the completion of a 20-year project on specifically 21st issues, that is, the political and economic fallout of the supply of and demand for illegal drugs.

The Dickensian comparison includes but is not restricted to Winslow’s tendency to sentiment and to the sort of coincidence that strains credulity. These are minor flaws overwhelmed by the sheer vim of a novel that shimmers with brilliance and conviction.

Like Mr Dickens, too, Winslow has taken a contemporary evil and investigated it with a creativity that cannot disguise his profound research. If one occasionally fails to be convinced by a plot twist or left disappointed by the insubstantial sketching of the odd character, then one is carried off by the sheer triumph of a trilogy that has become stronger with each book.

The Border is a monumental achievement. It sits alongside Beth Macy’s Dopesick as the best book on the drugs crisis in the USA. William James was once described as the philosopher who wrote like a novelist while his brother, Henry, was labelled as the author who wrote like a philosopher. Similarly, Macy is a reporter who compiles her work with the colourful flair of the fiction writer while Winslow is the writer of fiction with the skills of the dedicated reporter. There can be no arguments over the authenticity of the work of both.

Winslow uses a slew of fictional characters to spin out a narrative that resounds with truth, most of it uncomfortable. He takes the reader from the slums of Guatemala, though the war zones of Mexico to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. There is the boy travelling thousands of miles to escape gangs, the hedge fund manager in search of dirty money, the policeman playing the corrupt official, the psychotic female assassin, the dope addict in Staten Island, the long-time cartel leader hoping for a comeback, there are the chiefs of various gangs who share both a lust for power and a casual approach to the taking of life.

There is also a president who is corrupt, funded by unknown sources, active on Twitter and who wants to build a wall. There is also Art Keller, the hero of the Cartel trilogy, who has been chasing drugs dealers for 40 years and has found irrefutable truths. These include the mundane brutality of men and women, that where there is money there is corruption, that if there was a war on drugs it has been lost and that political expediency trumps moral authority.

These, of course, are hardly original discoveries but Winslow points them out with a force and drama that has been unmatched since James Ellroy’s fictional state of the nation addresses, most particularly in the Underworld USA trilogy. Winslow lacks Ellroy’s restless, maniacal genius instead having a solid sobriety that is also to be admired.

This adherence to the convention of the novel is the trait of Winslow, a craftsman of substantial gifts. The book stretches to more than 700 pages but there is rarely a lull. If one occurs, it is as a design to increase the jolt of a sudden drama to a subsequent event. There are a number of plot lines that capture the reader totally. Winslow is as ruthless as a cartel boss in despatching characters once they have served their purpose. He also has the ability to produce humour in the most unexpected of circumstances.

It is, then, at the very top end of the genre marked thriller or crime. But Winslow has transcended any narrow barriers, ironically jumping over any wall designed to separate fiction from non-fiction, thriller from social history.

There is a terrible beauty in the trilogy and it is bluntly articulated in The Border. Increasingly, crime cannot be separated from what was once regarded as respectable business. Banks accept dirty money, paying off the subsequent fines almost as a necessary tariff on trade. Politicians make deals with drug dealers, and not just in Mexico.

Crucially, Winslow points out that illegal drugs are not specifically a Mexican problem. It is, in this instance, a USA problem. The demand drives an industry that conforms to normal economic patterns even as it lays waste to the lives of both consumers and those involved in supplying them. The war on drugs has lost battles with marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin and now the opioids that have been made and dealt by legitimate pharmaceutical companies.

The USA is a country creaking under the effects of drugs on the welfare of its people. The debate has been polarised. Users are demonised by one side while others push for the legalisation of drugs. Winslow investigates subtly these arguments in an unrelenting story but, like Dickens who railed against myriad causes and effects of poverty in a series of novels, Winslow can interject bluntly with his own views.

The most intriguing is not the link between drugs money and international finance or even the increasing closeness of criminals to the higher echelons of politics. It is this: all drugs are designed to address pain. They do so successfully, at least for a while. So why have drugs, illegal or otherwise, permeated every strata of American society?

What precisely is that countrywide pain and how can it be treated without pill or injection?

This is the beating heart of a powerful novel that seems to breathe both fire and wisdom. The Puritans who brought the West to the USA were much enamoured of their prayer of a city on a hill to provide both solace and an example for the rest of the world. Three hundred years on, the reality is the construction of the bleakest of houses.