City on Fire, the latest thriller by Don Winslow, is unapologetic, brutal, and in-your-face — as any good crime novel should be. But City on Fire is better than good.
Winslow pulls no punches in this story of a mob war that erupts in 1980s New England between Irish and Italian Americans, sparked by irrational jealousy over a woman. Before it’s over, the war will leave a trail of bodies from both factions across Providence, Rhode Island, along with lives irrevocably upended and the threat of more bloodshed to come. (This is the opening salvo of a three-book saga — City of Dreams and City of Ashes are slated to follow. The trilogy has already been snatched up by Sony and 3000 Pictures in a mid-seven-figure deal for adaptation to the big screen.)
Winslow, who postponed City on Fire’s planned fall 2021 release because of the ongoing pandemic, says he’s been working on the saga for decades after setting it aside to read and master the classics. The result is a modern-day classic: Homer’s Iliad reimagined for a contemporary audience and set in Winslow’s native state of Rhode Island. “Providence is a gray city,” he writes. “Gray as the pessimism that hangs in the air like fog. Gray as grief.”
The novel revolves around a long-standing, though tenuous, business arrangement between the Murphy and Moretti mob families. “The Irish have the longshoremen’s union, the docks, small-town gambling and loan sharking,” Winslow tells us. “The Morettis have the Teamsters, construction unions, vending machines, cigarettes and alcohol, major gambling, major money on the street, strip clubs and prostitution.” As if that’s not enough, the Italians also have their hands in the drug trade, which the Murphys are only too happy to give them.
Caught in the middle of the mess is Danny Ryan, who walks a tightrope between both factions but ultimately holds his allegiance to the Irish by way of his marriage to Terri Murphy, the daughter of Irish crime boss John Murphy: “Danny didn’t want nothing to do with the rackets, the loan-sharking, the gambling, the hijacks, the union,” Winslow writes. The problem was, he wanted Terri.
When his brother-in-law, Liam Murphy, steals away the girlfriend of Paulie Moretti, the détente between the families is shattered for good. The novel opens with Danny’s intuition about the turmoil ahead: “Danny Ryan watches the woman come out of the water like a vision emerging from his dreams of the sea. Except she’s real and she’s going to be trouble.”
The aging patriarchs of both families keep the bloodshed at bay as long as they can, but with John’s death and the Morettis’ don retired in Florida, the youth movement unleashes its own chaotic power struggle.
“That’s the problem with war,” Danny reflects. “You have the challenge of trying to stay alive and at the same time make a living. Hard, when you’re being hunted, to go out and make your collections, or make a score, or even get back and forth from work.”
As Danny rises to lead the Irish faction, events quickly escalate. At first, the families make a half-hearted attempt at civility with new truces and bargains to stave off full-scale war, but petty jealousies and quests for power override calmer thinking. When the dogs are unleashed, the results are swift, unrelentless, and often rife with gory consequences.
“It started with a sunny day on the beach,” Winslow writes, “and ended up with you throwing cold dirt on your best friend’s coffin.”
If it all sounds somewhat reminiscent of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, it is — though turned up several notches. The prose is simple and straightforward, with crisp, biting dialogue that presents a fast, cinematic pace for the reader. But at the same time, Winslow slows things down at just the right moments to evoke powerful emotions of love, loss, family, loyalties, and betrayal.
Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Danny Ryan longs for a better life but keeps getting pulled back in. Readers won’t be able to pull themselves away from this one.
G. Robert Frazieris a former Middle Tennessee newspaper reporter and editor now working as a book reviewer and screenwriter. He has been a finalist in the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting competition and three-time semifinalist in the Nashville Film Festival screenplay contest. He lives in La Vergne where he serves on the Library Board.
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