Greg Fleming reviews the latest batch of crime fiction
The Cartel (William Heinemann)

By Don Winslow $38.00

If the mob's dirty biz preoccupied American writers and filmmakers last century today's are turning their attention to the Mexican border. With over 100 000 killed and thousands more missing the Mexican drug war's medieval brutality and increased visibility inspired the (excellent) Sicario (Emily Blunt as an out of her depth by-the-book cop) and FX's The Bridge, while the 80s Colombian drug wars fueled the recent Netflix series Narcos (drug-dealer as folk hero). Don Winslow's an old hand at this -- his 2005 novel The Power of the Dog -- focused on the rivalry between DEA's Art Keller and drug kingpin Adan Berrerra (modeled on the recently recaptured El Chapo). Its sequel The Cartel opens with (now ex-DEA) Keller as a - couldn't you guess? --beekeeper at New Mexican monastery, while Berrara sits in a US jail (guess who put him there). Unsurprisingly both are soon back across the border and the cat-and-mouse pursuit continues. If this gives the novel its structure, the most interesting material happens elsewhere - the compromised journalist Pablo, the narco couple who crave suburban acceptance, the brave, principled doctor Marisol. Things have changed since The Power of the Dog - the violence is more sadistic and the drug factions operate like armies, their reach into the lives of ordinary citizens, greater than ever. Throughout Winslow's unflashy prose flows with a quiet, searing power and for once the cover blurb - by everyone's favourite megalomaniac crime writer James Ellroy - is accurate - it really is "the War and Peace of dope war books".

Zero, Zero, Zero (Allen Lane)

By Roberto Saviano $37.00

If Winslow's novel often reads like non-fiction Italian writer Robert Saviano's Zero Zero Zero excitable non-fiction account of the global cocaine trade often reads like fiction (in a recent plagiarism allegation Saviano admitted that he uses literary novelistic flourishes that one would expect of a novel). Saviano hit the headlines after his bestseller Gomorrah - an explosive account of the Neapolitan mob - angered mob bosses. He's been living under protection since 2006 - and travels with seven bodyguards in two bullet-proof cars.


Zero Zero Zero - narco-traffickers name for high grade coke - opens with an overwrought "coke is everywhere" rant entitled Coke #1. Five similarly breathless screeds are scattered through the book - the nadir the pseudo poetry of #4 - it begins "Like something sacred, whose name cannot be uttered/ like a secret lover you hold close in your thoughts". The meat of the book is better - Saviano details cocaine's big boys from South America to India and all points between - but it's a hard slog.

Brotherhood In Death (Hachette)

By J.D. Robb $34.99

It's 2061 -- and apart from the odd droid (automated home help) and something called an AutoChef (food at the push of a button) life in J.D. Robb's fictional future hasn't changed that much. Neither has crime. The baser human instincts are alive and well and that's where Lieutenant Eve Dallas comes in after former senator Edward Mira is violently abducted. Mira's enemies are many and the possible suspects include members of his own family and the numerous pretty young things who shared hotel beds with him. Robb's a very talky writer - much of the plot's worked out in conversation with her longtime partner, Irish billionaire rogue, Roarke. This is J.D.'s - or Nora Roberts - who started out writing romance novels - 42nd In Death book. She's big business - 165 New York Times bestsellers at last count. Not sure I'll be back for more, but those who like their thrillers laced with a bit of chick-lit romance may fare better.

The Widow (Bantam Press)

By Fiona Barton $37.00

There's been much talk that this rather dour debut novel - about the kidnap and murder of a young girl and the resulting hunt for the culprit - from English ex-journalist Fiona Barton is the new Gone Girl and it has been launched with a huge marketing and publicity campaign. That's unfair to Barton who has none of the literary verve of Gillian Flynn. Barton's experience lies in reporting and covering cases like this and the police procedural and journalistic aspects are strong points. Like Gone Girl we get varying perspectives -- The Widow, The Reporter, The Detective, The Mother and The Husband. The latter (and prime suspect in the abduction) has been run over by a bus as the novel begins (hence the title). Barton cuts back and forth in time - complicity, guilt, self-deception - are the themes, but The Widow herself - manipulated and manipulative (apparently modeled on English serial killer Harold Shipman's tight-lipped wife) - isn't particularly interesting and the twist predictable.