Homer wrote about it first in The Iliad, and Don Winslow openly borrows the theme of a stunningly gorgeous woman causing a war. In “City on Fire,” the war is between two sets of mobsters; the Irish mob and the Italian mob, who heretofore had enjoyed a tenuous peace. That peace ends when the lovely Pam is introduced as she emerges from the ocean like Aphrodite, beautiful beyond description. Everyone notices her beauty, and the beginning sentences in the novel say it all, “(S)he’s real and she’s going to be trouble. Women that beautiful usually are.”
And yes, we soon see through the eyes of main character Danny Ryan that as Pam leaves the Italian mobster Paulie for the Irish Liam, son of the head of the group, it’s going to be the start of a war. Danny doesn’t really want any part of the incipient violence. After all, his father, once head of the Irish mob, has been sidelined. Now John Murphy runs the group, and his second in command is his son Pat. Danny is married to Murphy’s daughter Terri, but that hasn’t meant that he’s been given a place at the table.
I admit that this is the first book by Winslow that I’ve read. I found that I quickly got into the rhythm of his narrative. Although the story is told in third person narrative, Winslow shares Danny’s thoughts in first person, without quotation marks, and it works quite well. It makes us feel closely connected to Danny, and we soon realize that although he’s connected to mobsters, the son of a mobster, and married to the daughter of the head of the mob, he is often more rigidly moral than the others. Of course, we are talking about the mob, so that’s not an extremely high standard. We soon see that while Danny might not have formal training or education, his ability to think critically is important as he navigates a path through opposing mobs, law enforcement, family ties that bind him, and a family he’d do anything to protect.
Retribution is an important part of life in the mob, and there is example after example, murder after murder, to get revenge for a slight, for a disrespectful word or action. And while Danny resents that he is not the heir to his father’s empire, a lost empire, he accepts that John Murphy is now the head. But there is that kernel of bitterness that eats at him because of the daily slights he experiences at the hands of his wife’s family. It’s only when the war begins, and the Murphys seem unable to control what is happening, that Danny’s strength becomes clear. It’s then that he steps up to make important decisions and shape important events.
Against his actions are the pathetic missteps of Liam, one of John Murphy’s sons. Liam, the weak son, the one who couldn’t leave Pam alone, the one who started the war but had no idea how to end it. For a book about a violent topic and crude characters, Winslow’s writing is beautiful, veritably filled with imagery. We read about John Murphy holding court in the back room of his bar. They plot. “Conspiracies that go nowhere, Danny thinks, dreams that are stillborn. John Murphy is the king of an empire that died a long time ago. The light of a long-dead star.”
The city of Providence, Rhode Island, is the location for much of the action. According to Winslow, it’s a gray city. And after someone close to Danny dies, the city is “gray as grief.” There are poetic turns of phrase, and there’s humor. When the Irish are considering joining forces with the Black mobsters, they dine together. It’s where Danny’s intelligence shines and where Winslow’s ability to write with humor is apparent.
The ending of this first book is very satisfying, and it cements our vision of Winslow’s hero: Danny, who will do the right thing no matter how difficult, and ride into the sunset to slay dragons with his bare hands. And those who know him follow him into that unknown, trusting that he will prevail.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by William Morrow, the publisher, for review purposes.