Let me begin by stating Don Winslow is a superb crime novelist who has offered a number of excellent novels to his ever expanding readership. Winslow’s mastery of his genre was evident in his Cartel Trilogy made up of THE POWER OF THE DOG, THE CARTEL, AND THE BORDER. He followed this up with THE FORCE and BROKEN and now has introduced a new novel, CITY ON FIRE, an exceptional work of mob fiction, which introduces Danny Ryan who is caught between two criminal New England Empires, one Irish, one Italian. Winslow explores the themes of loyalty, betrayal, vengeance, and honor as he offers his unique storytelling genius to his fans.
In his latest novel Winslow begins with a playful scene at the beach, a beautiful woman walks out of the ocean with a bathing suit that accentuates her anatomy. At this point the reader has no conception of what this person’s anatomy will have on the course of the novel. Danny Ryan’s wife responds to his roving eye in comical fashion, and we are introduced to our main character’s life story. Danny’s role is a carefully crafted one as he is placed at the vortex of organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island in an area referred to as Dogtown. Two families one Italian-the Moretti’s and one Irish-the Murphy’s competitors in the past have made their peace and have come to agreement on how their mob activities will be conducted.
Danny, perhaps the only character in the novel that has somewhat of a moral compass is very unhappy with his situation as he is part of the muscle that the Murphy’s provide and is married to Terri, the daughter of the head of the Italian mob and owes his union card to his father-in-law. Danny would rather be on a fishing boat than scaring people when debts are due or conduct the vengeance that mob life periodically calls to fulfill. Both families have a number of sons who are friends until Liam Murphy, known to suffer from a lack of intelligence and timing insults Paulie Moretti’s girlfriend. The beatdown that follows looks as if it will touch off a gang war between the families. Soon payback comes as one of the Irish boys is murdered. Pasco Ferri who runs all of New England for the mob emerges as an interesting character as the relationship between the Murphy’s and Moretti’s deteriorates. For Danny, caught in the middle because of his family obligations, marriage, and friends the situation is very disconcerting.
Winslow has constructed what seems like a typical story involving different organized crime factions with violence, family loyalty, and dreams for the future. The author also produces a number of interesting characters that enhances the novel. Madeline McKay, a name chosen to further her career as a show girl and take advantage of her stunning looks emerges as a dominant character. Her mini-biography is fascinating, but most importantly we learn halfway through the novel she is Danny’s mother. Along the way we meet Solly Weiss, a well connected Jewish jeweler with strong mob and political connections, Manny Maniscalo, known as the undergarment king of the world, Sal Antonucci who carries out the Moretti’s dirty work, Philip Jardine a corrupt FBI agent among many.
The novel evolves through parallel tracks. First, Danny Ryan and his relationship with his mother and the mob. Second, the war between Peter Moretti and the Murphy family. Third, the internal conflict within the Moretti family and Sal Antonucci and his crew. Lastly, the full scale gang war that develops that permeates the entire novel.
Richard Lipez observes in his recent Washington Post book review accurately characterizes Winslow’s effort that “does for Rhode Island what David Chase’s ‘The Sopranos’ did for New Jersey.” Providence,
Rhode Island is the center of the mob action, but organized crime in the region must answer to Boston and New York. In true Winslow fashion the depiction of the stupidity of one character sets off a series of escalating power moves, betrayals and bloody murders fostering a gang war for control the docks, drug trade and other sources of income for a number of unsavory characters. The book exposes the racism and misogyny of the 1980s in New England and juxtaposes how organized crime acted in the by gone days of the 1950s and 60s as opposed to the new generation of mobsters that exist in the 1980s.
Winslow recreates gangland history at its best and though the author has stated he is retiring from writing he will deliver two more installments of this genre in the next two years. If this is true it is a loss as Winslow’s earlier “Cartel Trilogy” is the best recreation of the Mexican drug trade, and his new trilogy should be on par for mob books like the works of Mario Puzo, Martin Scorsese, and David Chase. Whatever the case maybe I look forward to the screenplay which is sure to come and the next novel depicting Danny Ryan’s quest for a normal life.