I oughta have my head examined.
Through no design on my part, I wound up reading two of the toughest, grimmest, most violent novels of the year in tandem. It was like running a bloody gauntlet between Taxi Driver and The Wild Bunch over two weeks of late nights in my reading chair. Toward the end, my nerves were so splintered, I added some light theology to plane them away.
One of these novels was written and set years ago. The other was written and set in the present. One was violent. The other, mega-violent. They were Get Carter, by Ted Lewis, and The Cartel, by Don Winslow. (The oblique rhyme of the titles is also noted.)
Get Carter was my annual trip back in time (or “Cloudland Revisited” as S.J. Perelman might call it.). I first read Ted Lewis' Brit-noir as a Popular Library paperback tie-in to the Michael Caine-Mike Hodges classic crime film of 1970 (available on video; it also occasionally peers darkly from the vaults of Turner Classics). Originally titled Jack’s Return Home, it seemed daring to this male high schooler in content and style, a violent tale spun in the first-person by a vile, reprehensible character.
Get Carter is a Jacobean revenge story—but not a tragedy—of a small-time London gangster, Jack Carter, on a trip home to Yorkshire to bury his late brother, Frank, and dig up the mucky truth surrounding his mysterious death. To complicate the matter, Jack and Frank, who was a square-living bloke, have been bitterly estranged for years. As with Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer, Carter and his brother had little use for each other. But it doesn’t matter what you think of your brother: When he’s killed, you gotta do something about it.
Forty years on, Get Carter still hits hard, an tightly muscled bulldog that bites with prose as gimlet-eyed as Hammett's. This time around, I noticed how vividly Lewis paints its particular corner, the late 1960s underworld of industrial England, a coal-smoked world where cosier mysteries dare not tread. The swinging ‘60s swing far out of sight; a place that stands apart from its era, a world trapped in the seedy amber of postwar England.
Both the novel, and the film it inspired, were shocking then. They still are. They came out during a time when criminality was glorified in popular culture as rebellious, romantic, even noble (Butch Cassidy, The Godfather and the like). Get Carter, both novel and film, will have none of that. Crime doesn’t pay, period. While there is plenty of pathos, not a speck of glamour gleams anywhere, especially in its depiction of how women fare in the underworld. (Not good. At all.)
Gentler readers will not want to enter. But for the rest, Get Carter remains a first-rate icon of modern crime fiction.
Now to the violent novel . . . .
Get Carter draws much of its its power from a combination of real-life backgrounds and well-contrived plotting. The Cartel by Don Winslow, is ripped and torn right from the headlines. Based closely on the Mexican Drug War that raged during the first decade of 2000s, just across our southern border, this is a righteously angry novel that takes aim at this “War on Drugs” with both hammer and blunderbuss.
And a war it truly is. Norte Americanos may talk a good war game, but the Mexican people are actually living it. Tens of thousands have died in what, in any other nation, would be called a civil war. The violence, depravity, and horror from this war crash from The Cartel’s six-hundred plus pages in towering waves of carnage.
The main hero is Art Keller, an ex-DEA agent who, in George Smiley fashion, returns from bee-keeping retirement to track down his arch-nemesis Adan Becerra, the most powerful drug lord in Mexico. Becerra, in turn, has put a high price on Keller’s head.
Early on, the story takes a turn into de Sadean fairyland as Magda Beltran, imprisoned for smuggling, falls under the spell of fellow prisoner—and real prison boss--Becerra, who runs the co-ed penitentiary with the same fatal aplomb Dracula uses to run his castle. His powers border on the supernatural.
This cat and mouse also involves numerous rival cartels battling to control the drug pipelines to the United States. In that it's as complex as a Le Carré novel. But beyond the intrigue, the violence and cruelty boil over into vicious, pointless insanity. Murder becomes a drug, an addiction that claims boys as young as nine. The situation becomes so desperate, Keller and his tiny band of untouchables go far outside the law to put a dent in it (a development that will make strict civil libertarians uncomfortable.)
In the end, dents are all that are made. The carnage has subsided for now but the Cartel remains in business. The war goes on. So long as Norte Americanos fail to come up with any useful ways for controlling demand, there’s simply too much money to be made off human weakness. Not only by the cartels, but also the politicians, businesses, the military, and law enforcement. Everyone, it seems, works for the Cartel.
There are other heroes besides Keller. He crosses paths with Mexican journalists struggling to expose and condemn the war, at enormous personal risk. (The novel’s dedication lists over sixty journalists who have been murdered while covering the war.). Keller also finds himself involved with the activists striving to help the civilians caught in the insane crossfire. The novel is a genuinely angry, and deserved, memorial to them.
The Cartel is a hard read, a novel I admire more than like. It's a soapbox novel, howling with rage at the top of its lungs. The violence, while relentless, is described with hard-boiled restraint. Still even hardboiled veterans may find it a numbing experience.
I also found it a little thin and hollow, maybe because it’s too much ripped from the headlines. During the course of its bloody pages, I researched some of the events it’s based on (including an excellent Frontline documentary). The factual accounts seemed to have more depth and urgency to them. (A list of sources used by Winslow appears at the end.)
“History,” a friend of mine once insisted, “is better than fiction.” The Cartel may be an example how even well-meant fiction can wind up a carbon copy of the events it rightfully strives to memorialize.
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield