Don Winslow once saw someone try to rob six off-duty cops in a bar in New York City. "They just pulled their guns, laughed and said, 'Get the fuck out of here,'" Winslow recalls. "Then they went back to their drinks. I've been wanting to write a New York cop book ever since."
Winslow, 63, is famous for his wildly readable, deeply researched Pacific Coast noir – drug dealing Navy SEALS in San Diego (2010's Savages) and Mexican cartel kingpins (2015's The Cartel) – that Hollywood directors like Oliver Stone and Ridley Scott promptly turn into blockbusters. But that's only half his story. "I know I'm thought of as a California guy," Winslow says, sitting in his office on his 30-acre ranch in the hills north of San Diego. "But my roots are back east. I came up working as a private eye in Times Square in the 70s, back when it was all crack vials and hookers and pickpockets, back before Mickey Mouse got there. I've known New York cops forever."
In his new novel, The Force, out this month, Winslow draws on decades of NYPD barhopping to produce a riveting 400-page thriller about a corrupt elite police unit in modern-day Manhattan. Centered on Denny Malone, a hard drinking, coke snorting, PTSD-addled detective sergeant breaking bad in order to stop an escalating drug war, the novel is top-shelf Winslow, a page-turner that also manages to dive into deeper issues like the shootings of unarmed African Americans, the politics of our current heroin epidemic, and how everyone – everyone – is on the take, from the beat cops to the prosecutors to the mayor. At one point, Winslow even depicts a darkened room of commissioners, politicians and real estate developers plotting the city's future, a villainous tableaux ripped straight out of a Bond film (movie rights have already sold to Fox for several million dollars, with Logan's James Mangold slated to direct). The scene can seem far-fetched, but in Winslow's world, you're a sucker to believe otherwise. "There are times when a whole city can get out of control," he says.
In The Force, Malone buys and sell justice like a warlord, making busts and then considering bribes to ignore victimless crimes like gambling ("clean money") or to report the spoils of, say, a crack raid ("dirty money"). He arrests low-level dealers and then sells the cases to defenders, getting 15 percent of legal fees – a practice known as "capping" – before later passing along bribes from those same dealers to prosecutors in order to get cases tossed out. And, after swindling the system and surviving near-fatal shootings, he and "Da Force" go on epic benders, drinking, snorting, smoking and carousing in high-end "clean money" brothels, all before taking private cars back to the wives and kids in Staten Island. "Mesmerizing, a triumph," Stephen King tweeted about the book earlier this year. "Think THE GODFATHER, only with cops. It's that good."
Winslow's own world, in which he maintains a writing and workout schedule about as regimented as a boot camp, is an entirely different scene. Every day, beginning at 5:30 a.m., he spends 12 hours working in his home office, a space adorned with family photos, shelves of crime fiction and a black speaker blasting the music of whatever culture he's covering – narco corridos for The Cartel, rap and hip hop for The Force. "I had my kid give me a playlist of Nas and Kendrick Lamar and NWA, and I would just crank it to where it was almost painful," he says. "I wanted the juice, the anger, to feel these people from the inside out. I'm sort of a method writer."
Even before becoming a best-selling author, Winslow arranged his life around collecting experiences: He worked as a safari guide in Kenya, a professor of Shakespeare in Oxford, an anti-terrorist consultant for the State Department and, of course, a private investigator in Times Square. During these years, he says, he learned to listen, to adapt on the fly and to take the full measure of his subjects. Now, his life is a series of ride-alongs with Mexican journalists or border cops or Manhattan detectives, the people on the frontlines of his stories, absorbing their worlds and then returning home to Jean, his wife of 31 years, to make sense of it all. When the immersion begins to rattle to him, he dons trail shoes and jogs for miles or practices his martial arts or heads to the former massage parlor he rents in a nearby town, the one with the soundproof walls where he can close his eyes and wail on his alto sax for hours. "Sorry man," he says at one point, stopping himself on Trump and the wall and the insanity of the American drug war. "I get crazy about this stuff."
But of all Winslow's books, none has consumed him for as long as The Force. He spent five years researching it on NYPD stakeouts and in high-level meetings, most facilitated by the cops he knew in the 70s who have since risen up the ranks. At one point, while driving around Inwood, Winslow eyed a building he thought would make a good place to run a heroin mill – discreet but with easy access to the West Side Highway – and wrote the locale into his book, setting a major drug raid there. Three weeks later, he learned one of the larger heroin busts in recent New York City history – 22 pounds worth $50 million – went down in the exact building.
Yet what truly sets Winslow apart, aside from his gut-punch prose and deep understanding of the criminal worlds he inhabits, is his ability to perceive the greater truths behind the guns and drugs and death. When it comes to today's strained police-community relations, he says, "There's a hostility in the air that wasn't there 10 years ago. People shouting 'Fuck you', giving you the finger, not wanting to serve you in stores or restaurants. Cops are forced to eat pre-wrapped food to ensure it hasn't been spit in or worse – I mean, you can feel it, man. It's palpable."
Of course, Winslow says, there are many racist and corrupt cops. But, the real problem stems from the top down, the law-and-order politicians who throw money at precincts to hire more police without accounting for proper training, resulting in ill-trained cadets wielding guns and immense power in neighborhoods that have become dumping grounds for society's ills, the casualties from the social-welfare programs – from drug to domestic abuse to mental health care – those same politicians have gutted. Add a mandate to respect people's privacy while ensuring their total safety, and, Winslow says, police can sometimes face a conflicting set of demands, all of these problems bubbling over into the streets. "Most of the cops I know are basically good honest people," he says. "But we have unrealistic expectations for them and it's affecting them. I mean, one thing I really learned is there is as much or more PTSD among police and first responders than there is in the military. One of the leading causes of death among police is suicide – more cops kill themselves than people kill cops."
Winslow pauses. "At the end of the day, it's about money," he says. "The mayor wants to get reelected. The zoning commission wants their jobs. And a judgeship costs somebody, either politically or with cash under the table. They all have to keep certain neighborhoods clean. So the instant answer is to put more cops on the street and expect them to do everything and then condemn them when they don't." He lets out a breath. "It's not just a few rotten apples – the whole basket's rotten."