The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Book review of Don Winslow’s “The Power of the Dog”. Published by Knopf in 2005.

Okay, okay, I finally got to Don Winslow’s “The Power of the Dog” and it never shrunk from the lofty expectations put on by its fans–it is  good great. “The Power of the Dog’s” cast of characters rivals a Leon Uris epic but the book centers on Art Keller, an ex-CIA operative and now an agent with the newly created Drug Enforcement Agency. It’s 1975 and Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs is spreading defoliant on opium in Sinola, a state in north-west Mexico on the Gulf of California coast. Keller isn’t happy with the direction of US policy but doing his job as best as can within the parameters set by his direct boss in Mexico City, the Mexican government, the corrupt Mexican police forces local and federal, and DC.

At 560 pages Winslow’s “The Power of the Dog” could reek of being heavily researched, but it never does. Winslow introduces us to the Byzantine issues that plague the US’s drug war whether it would be CIA operations from Nicaragua to Colombia, DEA politics, or the complex corruption at all levels of Mexican government, business, and the Catholic Church.

As the facts are made relatable by way of believable characters, so too is it that these characters drive “The Power of the Dog” rather than the plot being the force in most weaker thrillers. A good example of how Winslow has characters trump over plot is when the 1985 Mexico City earthquake strikes: we are thrown into the world of two characters, Nora and Archbishop Parada. Nora, a prostitute, asleep in a luxury hotel in the city when the earthquake struck, tries to escape and ends up trapped in the rubble. Parada serving Mass near the epicenter, miles from Mexico City, tends the wounded and gives Last Rites to the Guzmán’s dead. Subsequently, Parada is summoned to Mexico City. It is in the earthquake’s aftermath where Nora and Parada come into action. Nora schooled in the art of a high-priced call girl, begins to have empathy for others, and Parada, stuck in the politics of the Catholic Church, returns to his calling of not only saving the souls but the bodies of Mexican Catholics as well.

“The Power of the Dog” succeeds on the power of its characters, not its fantastic and dangerous plotline. Like Winslow’s latest book, “The Force”, he creates a world with a credible cast that behaves according to their sensibilities, not the story. Best of all, “The Power of the Dog” is as good as everyone has said, now I’m adding my voice to that chorus. The only thing that stopped me from immediately reading “The Cartel”, 2015’s continuation of The Power of the Dog series, was other reading commitments. Though picking up the even longer second book, 768 pages, is not too far off in the future. With the third (and final?) part of the series coming out in February 2019, I’ve got some time.

Buy: Knopf