THE POWER OF THE DOG – Don Winslow (2005)

The Power of the DogIt’s been ages since I read a proper crime novel – about 30 years since I’ve gobbled up the detectives of Jef Geeraerts in my very early teens, and about 25 years since I’ve read the historical whodunit An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, the 19th century police procedural The Alienist by Caleb Carr and The Red Ripper by Peter Conrad, a true crime title about Andrei Chikatilo, a Soviet serial killer who murdered & mutilated over 50 women and children.

Popular culture being what it is, I’m obviously no stranger to the genre in other forms, and I count Michael Mann’s Heat as one of my favorite movies.

Enter Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, a 543-page novel that chronicles the Mexican drug trade and the DEA’s involvement in the War on Drugs from 1975 to 1999, with a short epilogue in 2004. The book took 6 years to research and write, and it is its realism that is one of its main draws – next to a bulk of other strong suits.

10 years after its publication, Winslow published a sequel, The Cartel, and in 2019 he finished what has become The Cartel trilogy with The Border. I don’t think Wilson envisioned writing a trilogy from the start, but either way The Power of the Dog works perfectly well as a standalone work.

I’ll probably end up reading the entire trilogy – this first one is a brilliant 5-star book – but I’ve had my fix for now, so it might take me a year before I’ll start The Cartel.

What are this book’s strengths?

Winslow’s command of prose is really something: this must be one of the smoothest, conversational books I have ever read. He makes it look easy, but the supple speed at which words, thought and dialogue are interwoven is basically in its own category. At times Winslow sprinkles in a metaphor, but generally speaking this is top notch writing that doesn’t draw attention to itself: the characters and what’s happening are put dead center.

It is a sprawling story. As in Heat, many side characters get their due – making this a portrait that is about more than Mexico and drug violence. It is not so much that these characters are grey – what makes a grey character anyway? the fact that a stone cold killer loves his disabled daughter? – but that they are real and believable. Winslow does a great job zooming in how a few characters – like prostitute Nora Hayden and Irish mobster Sean Callan – end up having the kind of life they end up having.

Even so, this book is not a psychological novel. Besides on the action – murders, torture, smuggling, supply chain issues, revenge, corruption, the works – the focus is on the political side of this very real period in world history. In that sense, it is a highly educational book, and even more than Mexico the USA could be considered the chief subject.

Via DEA agent Art Keller, the book’s protagonist, we are exposed to the workings of things like Operation Condor – basically the clandestine killings of tens of thousands of people in South America orchestrated by the USA. Winslow also works in the CIA involvement in Contra cocaine trafficking, which, admittedly, is disputed by the US government. The Power of the Dog is as much about the cartels’ drug empires as it is about American imperialism.

Winslow is relentless in exposing how political machinations and cynical cold war scheming left heaps of people dead and large areas of foreign land defoliated. Freedom, justice and true democracy are a long way off. Nearly half a million people have been killed – directly or as collateral – in the Mexican War on Drugs, and it is very clear that it is the way the USA chose to deal with the drug problem that has made the cartels so deadly – and rich. It would be easy to be cynical about that, yet somehow The Power of the Dog doesn’t come across as a bitter read. I can’t really put my finger on why that is.

So many characters, so many happenings, so much to consider. Winslow nonetheless runs a tight ship – his plotting and pacing razor sharp. He never spoon feeds anything to the reader, and yet I never felt lost – the story always engaging and clear.

There’s conflict everywhere: between individual criminals, between the police and the maffia and the cartels, between police and politicians, between agencies, between countries, inside the clergy and between government and drug users.

That latest category is maybe the book’s only omission: there’s hardly attention for the effects of drugs on addicts, recreational users and their families & friends. I’m told that’s somewhat remedied in Winslow’s two sequels.

To cut things short: this comes with the strongest possible recommendation. The Power of the Dog is literature of the highest order about the real world, and yet it reads as action adventure. Remarkable.


For a more detailed review, check out Anthony Rainone in January Magazine.

Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.


11 responses to “THE POWER OF THE DOG – Don Winslow (2005)

  1. Interesting. Thanks for your reviews, I am always excited to see a new post from you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, the war on drugs was more political oriented than anything. it was sad and such programs as DARE came from that mindset and it was an abject failure.

    I am pleasantly surprised to read that there was no bitter tone. That kind of thing is SO easy to let happen and it definitely increases my respect for Winslow as an author that he could do that 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • I didn’t know DARE. Seems I have a bit of reading to do on its Wikipedia page. Thanks for pointing that out.

      The entire issue of drugs – its ethics & its political reactions – is interesting: the way societies deal with it, the reasons why people fall to its spells. It’s a topic that ties into so much of humanity.

      It will be interesting to see if Winslow can keep away full on cynicism in the sequels.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Couldn’t he have put a dragon in it? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m fairly sure you’ll like this too. Very cinematic in a way, very familiar as crime in general and drug trafficking in specific is in so many movies & series. At times more violent that lots of grimdark.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Sounds very intriguing, I’m tempted! I’ll put it on my TBR, but Bart, please, wouldn’t you read some shitty books for a change so that my TBR doesn’t grow exponentially after reading your reviews?? 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll see what I can do. 🙂

      A big part of my reading is a form of curating, I think I spend about a third of my reading hobby with reading about books, looking at lists, etc., etc. But even with all that energy, I still had 8 DNFs last year.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nah, just kidding 🤣 It’s impressive that you’re finding these great books and take pleasure in reading them among everything else that happens irl. Your kids must be in that age when you need 24/7 surveillance and infinite amounts of patience, so the fact that you’re still reading and blogging on such a level is really awesome!


  5. A true crime book that – as it sounds – works as smoothly as fiction, and graced by what you describe as “smooth and conversational” writing, is certainly one I would enjoy reading, while learning something new, which is always a plus.
    Thank you so much for sharing this! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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