Novelist Don Winslow isn’t one to shy away from controversy. “I’m not a preacher; I’m not a politician. God knows I’m not a philosopher,” he says. But Winslow’s latest crime thriller, The Border ($29, William Morrow), out in this month, tackles issues that are dividing a nation. “Immigration, race and the war on drugs are especially relevant to Southern California right now,” he says. However, the New York Times best-selling author insists the problem is “much more complicated and two-handed than you might think from the headlines.”
The Border is Winslow’s epic conclusion to his award-winning trilogy that sees the DEA, Mexican drug cartels and American politicians in an explosive game of cat and mouse. Think of the series as a millennial version of The Godfather that paints a rugged portrait of modern American ethos. “When we stand by the proposed wall and make statements about crime coming into our county,” says Winslow, “it makes me angry because we don’t mention anything about the crime that we fund in Mexico through our tens of billions of dollars in drug money.” And although he’s primarily concerned with delivering a gripping, entertaining read (which he does), Winslow also wants his audience to understand that “the Mexican drug problem isn’t the Mexican drug problem—it’s the American drug problem.”
Taking the reader inside the world of narcos, The Border delivers a harrowing look at the human casualties of the heroin epidemic. But the novel delivers more than an exposé on drug trafficking and hinges on the notion of moral relativism. “A lot of the book takes place on either side of the physical border between the United States and Mexico,” Winslow says. However, his border is also metaphoric. The novel deals with “internal borders people are willing to cross in terms of ethics, morals and emotions.” Ultimately, Winslow asks: If you cross those borders, can you ever come back?
Morally complex characters, like the trilogy’s protagonist Art Keller, whom Winslow has spent “more time with than any other real human” apart from his wife and son, make The Border an especially intriguing read. He also writes juicy female characters who aren’t just the girlfriend or wife. “You rarely hear about the anti-heroine,” he says. “I have women cartel leaders and social activists. There’s a stone cold killer woman in The Border who is drawn from life. It’s interesting to write women characters who are ethically conflicted.” If you’ve seen Salma Hayek’s ferocious performance in Savages, the 2012 Oliver Stone adaptation of Winslow’s novel by the same name, you know Winslow means business.
After spending thousands of hours researching and writing such dark subject matter, Winslow escapes to his domestic life, which he says is not dark at all. He likes to cook while listening to jazz and to drive the expanse of the Pacific Coast Highway, where the scenery holds for him “the small gods of place.” And although he says he isn’t very good, the crime writer gets into the ocean to surf as much as he can. “The ocean puts you in your place,” he says. Like many California residents, Winslow digs the grounding force of the Pacific Ocean. “What I love about the ocean is that it’s going to do what it’s going to do. You are so insignificant. I can write the scene of what should happen with that wave, but that’s not going to happen. Without getting too metaphysical about it, it’s up to the wave.”
Photography by: robert gallagher