The Cartel is a big, sprawling, ultimately stunning crime tableau that can be read as a stand-alone ... There are so many murderous grudges and so many shifting gang allegiances that parts of the book require close attention; you may even find yourself backing up a time or two ... The Cartel, like The Power of the Dog, can be better appreciated for its gritty, gasp-inducing knowledge of true crime’s brutal extremes, and for its unflinching awareness of what Mr. Winslow calls 'evil beyond the possibility of redemption' ... The Cartel culminates in a near-symphonic array of lethal coups de grace, written with such hallucinatory intensity that the whole book seems to have turned into a synchronized fireworks display. And still Mr. Winslow adds one last, hellish image that 'takes the freakin’ cake.' To make sure this story is something you won’t forget.
... extensively researched ... In truth, Keller isn’t particularly interesting, and Barrera is not much better, but they really don’t need to be. Supporting characters are Winslow’s forte ... If the two main characters of The Cartel are a little thin, they do their job, delivering the reader into the ongoing disaster that is the war on drugs ... Best of all, in the middle of the novel Winslow turns his attention to a passel of journalists working in Ciudad Juárez when the cartels were at their peak, and it’s as if he’d opened a window and let in some air. These people... feel conscripted from life, not films or books ... The machinery that has delivered all of Winslow’s characters to this place is a vast, interlocking system of competing national interests, ass-covering government agencies, delusional lawmakers, stupid policies, a shortsighted public, corrupt officials, and big business, the whole mass of it driven by the desire for money, power, and chemically induced ecstasy. This machinery has its own perverse majesty, despite Winslow’s well-founded outrage that it has been allowed to grind on and on and on.
Don Winslow affirms his status as one of the best American writers with The Cartel, his nightmarish novel about the Mexican-American drug wars ... devilishly plotted and exhaustingly vivid ... One of Mr. Winslow’s strengths is characterization, be it of Keller, the world-weary Barrera, endangered journalists like Pablo and Ana, or the self-made Don Pedro...
Winslow, a former private eye and insurance investigator, clearly knows the drug trade inside and out. This level of detail can’t be faked ... Unfortunately, too often The Cartel lacks [Elmore] Leonard’s snap, crackle and pop — or the wit that marked Winslow’s earlier novels ... the zesty, lubricious energy of The Power of the Dog is absent here, along with the lightness of tone of the earlier books, and it sometimes feels as if the author is putting together plot points in the service of the narrative, rather than the other way around ... And yet Winslow’s depiction of appalling conditions that we ignore at our peril is without peer.
Winslow, whose crime novels set in the surfing world... had a casual ease, seems to have written each word of this very long book in granite. Sadly, that seriousness has provided mostly clichés ... Like its hero, this novel hovers between two styles—pulp fiction and literary seriousness—which, taken together, render the genre formulas leaden.