Michael Carlson

Carlson's American Eye
Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to Shots a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....
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No Country For Old Men
No Country For Old Men
Cormac McCarthy

Picador, £7.99, ISBN 033044011X
The Power Of The Dog
The Power Of The Dog
Don Winslow
Arrow, £7.99, ISBN 0099464985


You won’t have seen Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, pop up in the little ghettos barb-wired off for crime fiction in most newspapers.  That’s because McCarthy is considered a Major Novelist, and deservedly so.  He writes with the flair of Faulkner and the fire of Hemingway.  But he’s also been a writer for whom genre elements have always played an important part: mostly westerns.  In fact a number of his books could be considered among the best westerns of the past two decades.  But he’s also shown affinities to the crime novel, which of course is related to the western, and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is, on the surface, a western-related crime novel.  But using that format of a straight-forward thriller, with more than few echoes of books like Jim Thompson’s THE GETAWAY, McCarthy encompasses a wider elegiac look at the America of our past, and our imaginations; a more innocent, more civil world.

The story is simple.  Llellyan Ross stumbles across the wreckage of a drug deal gone bad, and absconds with a suitcase full of money.  Like a fool, he goes back to check on, what?  Did he leave someone alive?  Someone he should kill or should help?  Whatever, that return dooms Ross to run, pursued by a number of people, most of whom have but one aim, to kill him.

The sole exception is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who’s a throwback in a lot of ways.  He could be looked at as the ‘old man’ of the book’s title, but although the book is in many ways a straight-forward pursuit thriller, it is the continuing internal monologue which Bell provides which not only provides its real drive, but also explains the title.  

McCarthy’s books are usually set in that sort of border territory that Sergio Leone imagined in his westerners, not quite America, too close to Mexico for comfort.  In his books, people are always bringing dead or half-dead bodies back across the border into the USA; Tommy Lee Jones’ movie THREE BURIALS was like a McCarthy reversed as the body went back to Mexico.  It’s the world of Sam Peckinpah, and Ed Tom is like a character from the THE WILD BUNCH who’s wandered into a remake of THE GETAWAY.  That’s simplifying it a bit, but lots of critics will argue McCarthy’s simplifying things too.  The book is none the worse for that. In fact, it’s meditation on the things we were, and the things we have become, is all the more powerful for its simplicity.  The country unsuited for old men is America, all of it, now, and it didn’t used to be that way.

Also set in the borders between the USA and Central America, THE POWER OF THE DOG, like so much Don Winslow has written, appeared to fall between the cracks in Britain, despite corralling some great reviews, among them a perceptive nod from Maxim Jakubowski in the Guardian.  Winslow has always been a craftsman of strong, stand-alone, suspense novels: CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, my favourite, had distinct echoes of classic LA film noir underneath its hard and shiny surface, and deserved more notice back then.

THE POWER OF THE DOG is something altogether different.  Because of its wide reach it has been compared with James Ellroy; Ellroy himself, more perceptively, called it ‘the first great dope novel since (Robert Stone’s) DOG SOLDIERS.’  Although the novel does pick up a frantic pace, becoming almost frenzied, it has none of the manic flows of prose which characterise Ellroy.  In fact, if anything it’s closer to the kind of big novels like Herman Wouk or John Jakes produced, or like THE GODFATHER’S REVENGE, about which I wrote here last time, in that it attempts to meld personal stories into an historical context.  But Winslow is a better novelist, with more to work with, than most who pursue this genre.  And, in his case, the history is much less widely known, though every bit as shocking, as the mob’s involvement in the JFK assassination.

In fact, in some ways, it’s a continuation of that.  THE POWER OF THE DOG deals with the drug trade from Mexico, covering nearly thirty years, with federal agent Art Keller at the centre.  Keller gets caught up in the twin corruptions of the Mexican police and crime families, and the US government’s two-faced approach to their war on drugs.  The similar connection between the CIA and heroin informed Stone’s Vietnam era novel, the intelligence community has used drug profits to fund its extra-legal work, and its minions, for half a century or more,  but here it’s South American cocaine as well as Mexican heroin.  These profits facilitate the illegal arming of the Nicaraguan contras, and other right-wing terror groups in Central America, an offshoot of the money paid by the Iranians for the weapons sold them illegally after the Reagan/Bush regime negotiated to keep the Tehran hostages prisoner until after the 1980 election was finished.  This is the territory of Iran Contra and October Surprise, and the books most closely related to THE POWER OF THE DOG may well be non-fiction like FIREWALL, or the work on drugs and the CIA by Gary Webb or Alfred McCoy, which detail the ways the government has found itself, by design or by practicality or by chance, working with drug dealers to further its own clandestine aims.  
But highlighting the factual basis would be undercutting the narrative drive that Winslow brings to his story.  Art Keller is the DEA agent whose obsession with doing his job, with avenging his partners, and with getting some sort of justice drives the novel, but there are any number of sub-plots, among the drug lords of Mexico and among the various American government agencies and Mexican police, to keep three or four novels going.  The story picks up pace, and perhaps loses some depth as it nears its conclusion, but that reflects the long odyssey which Keller and its other characters have endured.  It’s a piece of bravura ambition, and it deserves to push Winslow way up the crime writing ladder.  I don’t hesitate to pair with McCarthy, and that’s praise enough.



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