Depending on how you count it, this fast-paced and complex novel about Rhode Island’s criminal gangs dates back decades or millennia.
Novelist Don Winslow says that when he studied military history in college, he noted parallels with themes from Greek classics such as the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” as well as family tragedies from the Greek theatre. What he calls the “long, slow-burning genesis” sparked by this academic knowledge, along with his own career as a best-selling detective novel writer, came together under the name “City on Fire”, which he described as the first volume in a mob trilogy starring Danny Ryan, set in the fishing village where Winslow spent his youth.
The other classic, action-initiating echo in the novel comes with the sudden appearance of a woman, the kind of character whose beauty sparks a war between and within the criminal gangs that operated in Providence at the end. of the 1980s.
Her name is Pam, and Winslow introduces her as a “goddess out of the sea” at a beach party. She’s the girlfriend of a member of one of the Italian gangs in the area, and Ryan of the Irish gang considers her to have “a sex voice, low and a bit gritty — they all feel it, even the women, and that triggers a little tremor in the group.
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A few pages later, he thinks, “She’s going to be in trouble.” Women who are beautiful in general.
His instincts prove right over the next few months, as the rivalry for Pam’s affections spills over into the tenuous relationship between the Irish and Italian crime factions in Providence. Ryan is at the heart of things, as circumstances push him up the mobster hierarchy to positions he’s not always eager to accept. But he adapts, because, as Winslow writes at one point, “I am Danny Ryan, the good soldier. …. Good old Danny, doing the right thing.
The action takes place in an oppressive atmosphere with short fuses all around, a tense situation which Winslow skillfully paints:
“Providence is a small town in a small state. You can’t go anywhere without seeing someone you know, someone who knows you, someone who knows someone.
And that kind of economy of language applies to Ryan’s situation as well, when he faces big medical bills after being injured in a gang-related confrontation.
“Danny’s insurance with the union is pretty good,” Winslow writes, “but it’s not good for an out-of-state private facility, it’s fine for a local outpatient clinic.”
The novel’s language sometimes strays into gangster cliché, and “City on Fire” includes graphic depictions of sex and violence that may make some readers uncomfortable. But the dialogue and action ring true and move the story forward quickly, Winslow’s deft mix of culture, nationality and even race creating an atmosphere that’s as compelling as it is irresistible.
And the end of the first volume in the planned series will leave readers ready for more. Danny’s father, Marty, a former crime boss who fell on hard times, puts the long-running battle over territory and influence into perspective this way: The war is never over.
“The tide is rising, the tide is falling,” he says. “You go through war, you go through peace. You enjoy the peace while it lasts, you try to survive the war. That’s all you can do.
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in western St. Louis County.