The best books on the illegal drug trade

3 authors have picked their favorite books about the illegal drug trade and why they recommend each book.

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The Jonah

By James Herbert,

Book cover of The Jonah

James Herbert was, for me, the king, and The Jonah is brilliant. Jim Kelso, undercover cop, is a man with dark secrets. Shunned by others in the Police, he is seen as the eponymous Jonah as everything he touches seems to go wrong. Sent off to investigate a suspected drug factory on the coast, Kelso finds himself not only fighting the drug dealers he has been sent to bring to justice, but also with his own horrifying past. Part police procedural, part terrifying horror. Brilliant stuff.

The Jonah

By James Herbert,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Jonah as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The shadow of the past was always with him. But he never knew what it was, or when it would strike next. In James Herbert's The Jonah, detective Jim Kelso is sent to a small coastal town to investigate drug smuggling and stumbles on a dangerous organization. Suddenly more than just his life is at stake. It's his past, his future, his sanity. Through torture and drugs he discovers the terrifying secret of The Jonah. And learns, in the most horrifying way that it can destroy him as well as others . . .

Who am I?

After picking up a copy of James Herbert’s Lair (the second in his Rats trilogy) back in the early 80s, I decided I wanted to write something myself one day. That day came in about 1990, when I finished my first manuscript, Minstrel’s Bargain. I also wrote another MS around that time called Point of Contact, but nothing happened with these stories and I gave up on my writing dreams to concentrate on bringing up a family. Fast forward to 2015, and I sent the MS for Minstrel’s Bargain to an indie publisher. To my surprise, they took it on, and that book has spawned two sequels, entitled the Prophecy Trilogy. 


I wrote...

Point of Contact

By Richard Ayre,

Book cover of Point of Contact

What is my book about?

After the body of a man is found mysteriously burned to death in his home, Northumbria Police know there is only one person they can call on to help; fire Investigator Ian Fenwick, a man fighting his own demons. Fenwick soon finds himself pitched against crazed killers and mysterious entities known only as The Visitors. Can Fenwick stop them from carrying out their mission? If not, the whole world will burn.

The Power of the Dog

By Don Winslow,

Book cover of The Power of the Dog

NPR put it best when they said of Don Winslow’s border trilogy, “This is all basically Shakespeare. Not Shakespearean, mind you. But Shakespeare. As in, 300 years from now, when our children’s children’s children want to understand the defining conflict of the late 20th and early 21st century—when they want it presented with full lights and fireworks, costumed in gold chains and polo shirts, writ hugely in the way that only fiction can be—there’s a fair chance that this is what they will read.”

The Power of the Dog is the first novel in Don Winslow’s border trilogy and in my opinion, one of his best novels. (The Force and The Winter of Frankie Machine are close runners-up). The novel begins in 1975 and spans approximately thirty years of America’s War on Drugs, alluding to actual historical events through the heightened lens of fiction. The writing is…

The Power of the Dog

By Don Winslow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Power of the Dog as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Breathtaking' JEREMY CLARKSON
'Winslow's masterpiece (so far) ... should have a place on every crime freak's bookshelf. Superb' INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
_______________________
A brilliant page-turning thriller of power and revenge on the front lines of the drug war.

Drug lord Miguel Angel Barrera is head of the Mexican drug federacion, responsible for millions of dollars worth of cocaine traffic into the US and the torture and murder of those who stand in its way. His nephew, Adan Barrera, is his worthy successor.

Art Keller is a US government operative, so determined to obtain revenge for a murdered colleague that his…


Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by the sociopathic mind. I sometimes feel that sociopaths are, in many ways, freer than the rest of us. They are divorced from the crippling feelings of guilt and remorse. Throughout my writing career, I have interacted with both cops and career criminals and I have become convinced that they share similar mindsets. They may not be full-blown sociopaths (though some are), but they have what I would call “a touch” of the sociopathic mind. They are essentially the same people. This is a theme that I find my writing continually dwells on—the freedom of having an anti-social personality and its consequences for both society and the individual.


I wrote...

The Padre

By Alex Davidson,

Book cover of The Padre

What is my book about?

Cal is a hitman on the run from his powerful old boss. He has found sanctuary among the invisible poor in the barrio outside of Mexico City. He lives in and fixes up an old, dilapidated Catholic church, which is how he earned his nickname among the locals as "El Padre." The Father. The Priest. 

After a young Mexican woman he befriends is trafficked to a crime organization in Los Angeles headed by his old boss, Cal must come out of hiding to rescue her and, at the same time, face his dark past.

Poppies, Politics, and Power

By James Tharin Bradford,

Book cover of Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy

Drug trafficking has become entwined with Afghanistan in the minds of many, though the true situation is often misunderstood. Bradford’s meticulous research not only clearly explains the present situation, it places it in the broader historical context that is almost always missing. The legal trade in opium has deep roots in Afghanistan, and even in the present day, there are as many senior government officials benefiting from it as there are insurgent leaders. He also explores the growing problem with addiction that plagues Afghanistan, humanizing a complex problem.

Poppies, Politics, and Power

By James Tharin Bradford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Poppies, Politics, and Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Historians have long neglected Afghanistan's broader history when portraying the opium industry. But in Poppies, Politics, and Power, James Tharin Bradford rebalances the discourse, showing that it is not the past forty years of lawlessness that makes the opium industry what it is, but the sheer breadth of the twentieth-century Afghanistan experience. Rather than byproducts of a failed contemporary system, argues Bradford, drugs, especially opium, were critical components in the formation and failure of the Afghan state.

In this history of drugs and drug control in Afghanistan, Bradford shows us how the country moved from licit supply of the global…


Who am I?

Phil Halton has worked in conflict zones around the world as an officer in the Canadian Army and as a security consultant and has extensive experience in Afghanistan. He is the author of two novels and a history. He holds a Master's Degree in Defence Studies from Royal Military College of Canada, and a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from Humber College. 


I wrote...

Blood Washing Blood: Afghanistan's Hundred-Year War

By Phil Halton,

Book cover of Blood Washing Blood: Afghanistan's Hundred-Year War

What is my book about?

The war in Afghanistan has consumed vast amounts of blood and treasure, causing the Western powers to seek an exit without achieving victory. Seemingly never-ending, the conflict has become synonymous with a number of issues ― global jihad, rampant tribalism, and the narcotics trade ― but even though they are cited as the causes of the conflict, they are in fact symptoms.

Rather than beginning after 9/11 or with the Soviet “invasion” in 1979, the current conflict in Afghanistan began with the social reforms imposed by Amanullah Amir in 1919. Western powers have failed to recognize that legitimate grievances are driving the local population to turn to insurgency in Afghanistan. The issues they are willing to fight for have deep roots, forming a hundred-year-long social conflict over questions of secularism, modernity, and centralized power. The first step toward achieving a “solution” to the Afghanistan “problem” is to have a clear-eyed view of what is really driving it.

The Infiltrator

By Robert Mazur,

Book cover of The Infiltrator: The True Story of One Man Against the Biggest Drug Cartel in History

The movie based on this book featured the drama of Mazur’s undercover work as a U.S. Customs agent penetrating the money laundering behemoth known as BCCI, the bank that served crooks and governments around the world. What the film didn’t capture was the difficulty Mazur faced from federal officials who refused to act on the evidence he’d risked his life to obtain. After a state prosecuting attorney finally won indictments that brought down BCCI, Mazur testified that Department of Justice officials had ignored “hundreds of leads” that might have linked the institution to other cases of drug money, arms deals, and secret ownership of American banks.

The Infiltrator

By Robert Mazur,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Infiltrator as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The electrifying true story of Robert Mazur's life as an undercover agent who infiltrated one of the world's largest drug cartels by posing as a high-level money launderer -- the inspiration for the major motion picture The Infiltrator.

Robert Mazur spent years undercover infiltrating the Medellín Cartel's criminal hierarchy. The dirty bankers and businessmen he befriended -- some of whom still shape power across the globe -- knew him as Bob Musella, a wealthy, mob-connected big shot living the good life. Together they partied in $1,000-per-night hotel suites, drank bottles of the world's finest champagne, drove Rolls-Royce convertibles, and flew…

Who am I?

As a longtime reporter in a small state with big politics, I’ve become fascinated by how sly intrusions of power can distort what should be routine police investigations. One of my sources observed, “Sometimes the cover-up is more interesting than the crime.” With that in mind, I began writing books to examine cases whose outcomes didn’t seem to make sense. It’s become a genre I call “crime after crime.”


I wrote...

The Boys on the Tracks: Death, Denial, and a Mother's Crusade to Bring Her Son's Killers to Justice

By Mara Leveritt,

Book cover of The Boys on the Tracks: Death, Denial, and a Mother's Crusade to Bring Her Son's Killers to Justice

What is my book about?

This close-up examination of one of the biggest unsolved crimes in U.S. history pulls back layers of questionable official behavior. It starts as the horrified crew of a train realizes that they are about to run over two teenagers lying motionless ahead on the tracks. The crewmen tell responding officers that the boys were partially covered by a tarp, but police reject their account. After the Arkansas medical examiner rules the deaths suicides, an independent autopsy uncovers evidence of murder, propelling the mother of one of the boys from her pain into a fight for answers. By midway through this tragedy, a half-dozen other young men in the same small county have died mysteriously or disappeared. But though a large-scale drug conspiracy implicates the prosecuting attorney, eventually sending him to prison, state and federal investigators never linked the corruption in his office to the murders.

Prisoner 13498

By Robert H. Davies,

Book cover of Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Prison in Modern China

Xinjiang Province was a very different place mere decades ago when it was China’s Wild West and all kinds of foreign characters were drawn to the region like a magnet. Englishman Robert Davies ran bars and tourism ventures and married an Uyghur woman, a love affair passionately recounted in his memoir, before being arrested for hashish smuggling on trumped-up charges (a drug native to the Uyghurs, who openly sold it in Xinjiang restaurants in Beijing as late as the 1990s) and sent to a Shanghai prison for eight years. Davies and those busted with him were the first such group of foreigners to be made an example of (and survive with mind intact). His account is highly readable, chock full of vivid detail, and an excellent general introduction to Chinese culture and society of the 1980s—from within the belly of the beast. I was most impressed by Davies’ fearless embrace…

Prisoner 13498

By Robert H. Davies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Prisoner 13498 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Robert Davies first went to China in 1988 as an overland backpacker and, after a hair-raising two months touring Pakistan, found himself in Kashgar, the fabled Silk Road city. Here his life was irrevocably changed when he fell head over heels in love with Sharapet, an Uighur lady who was already married with a ten-year-old daughter. Love made them blind to the bureaucracy they had to face, strong for the thousands of miles they had to travel to obtain permission to marry, and resolute against the rage of Sharapet's revenge-seeking ex-husband. But Robert became involved in the trafficking of hashish.…

Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews

What is my book about?

Have foreigners shaped China’s history to a greater extent than has previously been acknowledged, reaching back possibly millennia? Was Confucius’ most famous book, The Analects, inspired by entheogenic medicines imported from abroad, possession of which in the 1930s brought one before the firing squad in the name of Confucius? In these book review essays by Isham Cook, foreign devils, old China Hands, eccentric expatriates, and a few Chinese tell an offbeat history of China’s last two centuries, with a backward glance at ancient China as told by Western mummies.

El Narco

By Ioan Grillo,

Book cover of El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency

A work of intrepid journalism and sizzling writing, Grillo’s El Narco is the result of upwards of a decade following the mercurial, terrifying evolution of Mexico’s drug cartels. I’ve taught this book to my Davidson College students studying Latin American politics and they repeatedly tell me that it is their favorite book they tackle in the course. 

El Narco

By Ioan Grillo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked El Narco as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'War' is no exaggeration in discussing the bloodshed that has terrorized Mexico in the past decades. As rival cartels battle for control of a billion-dollar drug trade, the body count- 23,000 dead in five years - and sheer horror beggar the imagination of journalistic witnesses. Cartel gunmen have shot up schools and rehabilitation centers, and murdered the entire families of those who defy them. Reformers and law enforcement officials have been gunned down within hours of taking office. Headless corpses are dumped on streets to intimidate rivals, and severed heads are rolled onto dancefloors as messages to would-be opponents. And…

Who am I?

Over my two decades as a scholar of American foreign policy and international politics, I had multiple opportunities to serve as a Latin America foreign policy aide. Given that Latin America plays a central role in the U.S.-hatched modern war on drugs, much of my policymaking was directly or indirectly tied to drug policy. I thus wrote Drugs and Thugs above all to make sure that I had a good sense of the history of this seemingly eternal conflict, one that is “fought” as much at home as abroad. 


I wrote...

Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs

By Russell C. Crandall,

Book cover of Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs

What is my book about?

How can the United States chart a path forward in the war on drugs? In Drugs and Thugs, Russell Crandall uncovers the full history of this war that has lasted more than a century. As a scholar and a high-level national security advisor to both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, he provides an essential view of the economic, political, and human impacts of U.S. drug policies. Backed by extensive research, lucid and unbiased analysis of policy, and his own personal experiences, Crandall takes readers from Afghanistan to Colombia, to Peru and Mexico, to Miami International Airport, and the border crossing between El Paso and Juarez to trace the complex social networks that make up the drug trade and drug consumption. 

Book cover of The Bluegrass Conspiracy: An Inside Story of Power, Greed, Drugs & Murder

I was wowed by this book. Denton looks beyond the immaculate white fences and princely politics of Lexington, Kentucky’s thoroughbred horse culture and sees into a drug ring run by a thoroughly corrupt former cop. Her account of a lone police investigator’s confrontation with powerful forces bent on keeping their secrets stands the test of time. It’s a look at how justice too often runs offtrack—a harrowing tale well told.

The Bluegrass Conspiracy

By Sally Denton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bluegrass Conspiracy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Kentucky Blueblood Drew Thornton parachuted to his death in September 1985 carrying thousands in cash and 150 pounds of cocaine, the gruesome end of his startling life blew open a scandal that reached to the most secret circles of the U.S. government. The story of Thornton and The Company he served, and the lone heroic fight of State Policeman Ralph Ross against an international web of corruption, is one of the most portentous tales of the 20th century.

Who am I?

As a longtime reporter in a small state with big politics, I’ve become fascinated by how sly intrusions of power can distort what should be routine police investigations. One of my sources observed, “Sometimes the cover-up is more interesting than the crime.” With that in mind, I began writing books to examine cases whose outcomes didn’t seem to make sense. It’s become a genre I call “crime after crime.”


I wrote...

The Boys on the Tracks: Death, Denial, and a Mother's Crusade to Bring Her Son's Killers to Justice

By Mara Leveritt,

Book cover of The Boys on the Tracks: Death, Denial, and a Mother's Crusade to Bring Her Son's Killers to Justice

What is my book about?

This close-up examination of one of the biggest unsolved crimes in U.S. history pulls back layers of questionable official behavior. It starts as the horrified crew of a train realizes that they are about to run over two teenagers lying motionless ahead on the tracks. The crewmen tell responding officers that the boys were partially covered by a tarp, but police reject their account. After the Arkansas medical examiner rules the deaths suicides, an independent autopsy uncovers evidence of murder, propelling the mother of one of the boys from her pain into a fight for answers. By midway through this tragedy, a half-dozen other young men in the same small county have died mysteriously or disappeared. But though a large-scale drug conspiracy implicates the prosecuting attorney, eventually sending him to prison, state and federal investigators never linked the corruption in his office to the murders.

Autonomous

By Annalee Newitz,

Book cover of Autonomous

Autonomous is a thought-provoking cyberpunk story that takes place in a near-future society where Big Pharma pretty much runs the show. Our main character, Jack, makes dupes of expensive prescription drugs, selling them on the black market. Even though her goal is arguably pretty noble (selling expensive drugs to poorer citizens on the cheap), the story follows the consequences that ensue when she starts selling a black market drug that gives users horrific and life-threatening side effects. 

Our other main characters are a military-grade AI-powered robot and a member of the armed forces who are tasked with chasing down the drug pirate responsible for this catastrophe. These two track down clues to lead them to Jack’s hideout, all while she tries to find a medical solution to the problems she’s caused. 

None of the characters in Autonomous are particularly likable. All of them are jam-packed with absolutely deal-breaking flaws, but…

Autonomous

By Annalee Newitz,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Autonomous as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Autonomous is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the internet' NEAL STEPHENSON

'Something genuinely and thrillingly new' WILLIAM GIBSON

'Holy hell. Autonomous is remarkable' LAUREN BEUKES

WINNER OF THE 2018 LAMBDA AWARD FOR SFF
SHORTLISTED FOR THE NEBULA AWARD 2018
SHORTLISTED FOR THE LOCUS AWARD FOR BEST DEBUT 2018

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap medicines for those who can't otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their…


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by morally grey characters. One of the things I find so fascinating about them is their unpredictability. You can always count on a knight in shining armor to do the right thing. Captain America will always make the sacrifice play. That doesn’t mean they’re not great characters… it just makes it a little harder for them to surprise us. When everyone is kind of a “bad guy” in a story, it makes things doubly fascinating because you simultaneously want to root for everyone and no one. That was my goal in writing Among Thieves: for readers to have no idea who they wanted to “win” in the end. 


I wrote...

Among Thieves

By M.J. Kuhn,

Book cover of Among Thieves

What is my book about?

Ryia ‘the Butcher’ Cautella has earned her reputation as the deadliest blade in the city – not to mention the sharpest tongue. But Ryia Cautella is not her real name.

A deadly secret has kept Ryia on the run, doing whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of the formidable Guildmaster – sovereign ruler of the five kingdoms. But even the most powerful men can be defeated. One last job stands between Ryia and her freedom – but she can’t do it alone. She teams up with a crew of miscreants, smugglers, and thieves to attempt an impossible heist on the most tightly guarded island in the kingdoms – the Guildmaster’s stronghold. Unfortunately for Ryia, her new allies are all planning betrayals of their own...

Street Pharm

By Allison van Diepen,

Book cover of Street Pharm

Street Pharm is a dark, cultural, and realistic look into Tyrone's life as a teenage drug dealer.  A raw and urban story of a teen who inherits a life of crime because of the situation he was born into and the harsh awakening that comes with it. An intense and page-turning read that had me glued till the very end.

Street Pharm

By Allison van Diepen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Street Pharm as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A successful teen drug dealer is forced to reexamine it all in this riveting novel, now in trade paperback with a new cover, from the author of Snitch.

Ty Johnson knows survival. The supply game’s in his blood. And now that he’s taken over his pop’s business, Ty’s smarts and skills have earned him some serious street cred. But Alyse knows nothing about Ty’s reputation, and he’s determined to keep it that way. She’s too beautiful, too brainy, too straight-laced to ever get involved with someone who deals. As long as Ty walks the line, life’s pretty sweet.

Then one…

Who am I?

I am a multicultural published author from California. I attended different schools growing up, reading classic literature that I couldn't relate to, resulting in becoming a reluctant reader. I didn't live in historical time periods. My skin was a lighter shade of brown. In my world, I met kids from diverse backgrounds, who spoke slang and had personal hardships. Where were the books like that? That's why I wrote Graffiti Girl. To share a realistic, multicultural approach so the reluctant reader could have characters they could see themselves in. That's why I chose these books, in no specific order, that share contemporary, urban stories involving people of different cultures, who face unique hardships.


I wrote...

Graffiti Girl

By Kelly Parra,

Book cover of Graffiti Girl

What is my book about?

Raised by her single mom in a struggling California neighborhood, Angel Rodriguez channels her hopes and dreams into her paintings. But when her entry for a community mural doesn’t rate, she’s heartbroken. Even with artist Nathan Ramos taking an interest in Angel's art, she’s determined to find her own place in the art world.

That’s when Miguel Badalin introduces her to an underground world of graf tags and turf wars. Soon she’s running with Miguel’s crew and emerging as the artist she always dreamed to be. But Nathan and Miguel are bitter enemies, and choosing between them and their wildly different approaches to art means that Angel must decide what matters most before the artist inside of her can truly break free.

Chasing the Scream

By Johann Hari,

Book cover of Chasing the Scream: The Opposite of Addiction is Connection

Hari’s Chasing the Scream is not an exhaustively researched book but it still merits listing given how viscerally the author addresses the history of the global war on drugs in the light of his own personal addiction. Hari shines in his depiction of circa 1930s U.S. Drug Cop #1, Henry J. Anslinger, who, among other dubious endeavors, sought to throw the book at jazz singer Billie Holiday, who also happened to be a heroin addict.  

Chasing the Scream

By Johann Hari,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chasing the Scream as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The New York Times Bestseller

What if everything you think you know about addiction is wrong? Johann Hari's journey into the heart of the war on drugs led him to ask this question--and to write the book that gave rise to his viral TED talk, viewed more than 62 million times, and inspired the feature film The United States vs. Billie Holiday and the documentary series The Fix.

One of Johann Hari's earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of his relatives and not being able to. As he grew older, he realized he had addiction in his…

Who am I?

Over my two decades as a scholar of American foreign policy and international politics, I had multiple opportunities to serve as a Latin America foreign policy aide. Given that Latin America plays a central role in the U.S.-hatched modern war on drugs, much of my policymaking was directly or indirectly tied to drug policy. I thus wrote Drugs and Thugs above all to make sure that I had a good sense of the history of this seemingly eternal conflict, one that is “fought” as much at home as abroad. 


I wrote...

Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs

By Russell C. Crandall,

Book cover of Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs

What is my book about?

How can the United States chart a path forward in the war on drugs? In Drugs and Thugs, Russell Crandall uncovers the full history of this war that has lasted more than a century. As a scholar and a high-level national security advisor to both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, he provides an essential view of the economic, political, and human impacts of U.S. drug policies. Backed by extensive research, lucid and unbiased analysis of policy, and his own personal experiences, Crandall takes readers from Afghanistan to Colombia, to Peru and Mexico, to Miami International Airport, and the border crossing between El Paso and Juarez to trace the complex social networks that make up the drug trade and drug consumption. 

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