Monday, December 14, 2015

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015,
Part VI: Anthony Rainone and Seamus Scanlon

Anthony Rainone is a contributor to January Magazine and The Rap Sheet. He lives in Brooklyn, where he writes screenplays.

The Cartel, by Don Winslow (Knopf):
Art Keller is a tragic figure. He has been fighting the war on drugs for four decades on behalf of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He has been the de facto American warlord on drugs in Mexico. In particular, he has waged a personal battle against Adán Barrera, the head of the El Federación cartel. It has cost Keller his family and his partner, and at the beginning of this novel, it seems it has cost him his will to live as well. The Cartel is about so much more than Keller, however. It takes in everything swirling around the drug trade like a twister ripping the ground apart. It is about the violent forces interlocking the cartels against each other with unspeakable brutality (men are burned alive in oil barrels). It is about the market forces of supply (Mexico) and demand (the United States) that make Adán and Keller puppets in a Machiavellian clash of law and order and money. Adán can no more turn away from what he has built and what he has become, than Keller can lay down his gun and stop hunting the man who has forced him to live in cheap motels and look constantly over his shoulder. The Cartel is more than a saga: it is folklore, history, and socio-economic forces all backdropped by the context of fragile human life. Everyone is affected by the kind of choices made in this yarn, from the man and woman on the street trying (literally) to make one dollar, to the cowboy-dressed millionaire narcos hiding out in hilltop mansions that could withstand an invasion from Seal Team Six. Winslow is a master novelist, and there is good reason why his book spans more than 600 pages and demands considerable attention from readers. Three-quarters of the way through, you lose sense of who belongs to which cartel, who is fighting against whom, which plazas (drug territories) are vital and which are not. It is the same logistical maze that law enforcement faces when confronting the constantly shifting sands of drug alliances and wars. The violence here is unrelenting: burnings, throat slashings, redundant deaths by semiautomatic rifle. This maelstrom of bloodshed beats like an unending drum rhythm, because it brings the reader face-to-face with the true nature of narcotics-dealing. Keller is up against a tsunami. The immense fortitude and, perhaps, lunacy necessary for someone to remain committed to this drug war is enough to make your stomach churn. This is realism at its best. In the pas de deux between Barrera and Keller we see mirror images of the lengths to which each man will go. Barrera is barbaric: men, women, and children are endlessly executed on his orders. Meanwhile, Keller is coldly objective: he turns a blind eye to the Mexican military assassination squads he assists. In the end, almost nobody is left alive, though one could argue that they weren’t really living to being with. Keller has again lost those he loved, but perhaps he has gained, too. Maybe he isn’t really all that tragic a figure. Maybe he realizes that the best you can hope for is the victory today and the single life you can save from the bullet.

Seamus Scanlon is a librarian, a professor at The City College of New York, and the award-winning Irish author of As Close as You’ll Ever Be.

Dark City Lights: New York Stories, edited by Lawrence Block
(Three Rooms Press):

Science fiction, crime, horror, tour guides, squeegees, movie locations, struggling artists, ambulance chasers, Marilyn Monroe, the garment industry, subways, Shakespeare in the Park, wilding, a corrupt bedside manner--all of those genres and topics, plus more, are included in this fine collection of New York City stories, along with a succinct and witty introduction by Lawrence Block. His own story in this collection, “Keller the Dog Killer,” I had read previously, but it is always a pleasure to reread tales featuring Keller, the antihero assassin-for-hire with a penchant for guns, stamps, and getting rid of loose ends. “The Big Snip,” by Thomas Pluck, made me wince in a good way. “The Garmento and the Movie Star,” by Jonathan Santlofer, is a magnificent story about Marilyn Monroe. “The Dead Client,” by Parnell Hall, has great energy, dialogue, and humor. Erin Mitchell’s “Old Hands” is written with aplomb and bleak humor. S.J. Rozan’s “Wet Dog on a Rainy Day” is a sobering, despair-filled story of lost love. This anthology offers great stories in the great city of New York, where anything can happen and usually does. Highly recommended.

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