Don Winslow, an author known to many in recent years for stories about cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, has released a novel set in Rhode Island, a small New England state that once had a large Mafia presence.
The first in a trilogy, City on Fire centers on a war during the 1980s between Irish and Italian mobsters in the state’s capital, Providence.
At first, the two factions remain on respectful terms, but then a member of the Irish crime family inappropriately touches a woman dating one of the Italian mobsters. This drives a wedge between the groups that escalates when the woman marries this same Irishman.
Against this backdrop is a fast-paced series of shootings, betrayals and tragedies.
Ready to turn his back on the destructive environment in his hometown, Irish mobster Danny Ryan dumps millions of dollars’ worth of heroin into the ocean and shoots a corrupt federal agent to death.
Apparently headed to California with his son to start over, Ryan concludes, “If you want to build a new life, a clean life, you can’t do it on top of sin.”
Packed with action, violence and sex, this tale, inspired by Homer’s Iliad, appears ready-made for a television miniseries. Readers familiar with Winslow’s border novel Savages, made into a movie by director Oliver Stone, have an appreciation for how effectively his plot-driven thrillers translate to the screen.
Las Vegas connection
A portion of City on Fire is set in Las Vegas, where a showgirl originally from a poor family in Barstow, California, marries a wealthy Southern Nevada lingerie manufacturer, the “Undergarment King of the World,” and, in time, begins engaging in extramarital affairs. One brief relationship, with a man she meets in a bar at the Flamingo hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip, results in the birth of Danny Ryan.
Deciding she’s “not cut out” to be a mother, the former showgirl travels to Rhode Island to drop the child off with his gangster dad, then ultimately makes her way back to Las Vegas.
After her husband’s death, with wealth of her own, she reappears in Danny Ryan’s life to help his family financially during their later difficulties. However, Danny’s smoldering resentment toward her for leaving him motherless won’t subside, and she is driven away.
The use of Providence as the primary setting gives City on Fire a ring of geographic authenticity. While the novel doesn’t touch on the area’s historical mobsters, Providence earned a reputation decades ago as a Mafia stronghold, ruled by crime boss Raymond Patriarca, whose empire extended across the region.
In the book Black Mass, by former Boston Globe journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the iron-fisted Patriarca is described as “the New England godfather.” The 2015 movie Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp as Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, is based on the book.
Providence also is featured in the first season of the documentary podcast Crimetown, which follows the plight of former Mayor Buddy Cianci, a convicted felon, and shines a light on the city’s underworld.
In addition, Providence is where crime novelist George V. Higgins got his start in journalism as a newspaper reporter, learning about the Mafia’s involvement in the city.
Leaving the Providence Journal behind, Higgins returned to Boston, where he’d gone to college, and worked as a reporter for the Associated Press, then as a prosecuting attorney sometimes handling organized crime cases.
With this background, Higgins was critical of fiction writers who lack real-world work experience. His most celebrated New England-based crime novel, 1972’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, was made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum.
”The disability of much American literature is that it’s written by college professors sitting on their big fat rusty-dusties who don’t know anything about law, politics or any subject in which real people make real livings,’’ Higgins said.
Winslow retiring from fiction writing
Like Higgins before him, Winslow is a novelist whose work life has included employment in different fields. A Rhode Island native, the 68-year-old Winslow has held down several jobs, including movie theater manager, private investigator in Times Square and safari guide in Kenya.
As an investigator mainly in California, Winslow lived with his family in hotels for almost three years while working on cases and consulting at trials.
The author of 22 books, Winslow now is active on social media sites, speaking out on gun violence and other issues. His Twitter account, identifying him as “#1 International bestselling author + troublemaker,” has almost 900,000 followers.
On his YouTube channel, “Don Winslow Films,” the author has created a video series, with help from celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen and Jeff Daniels, criticizing political figures such as former President Donald Trump.
Winslow’s activism shows no signs of slowing down. On a recent episode of PBS NewsHour, Winslow, responding to why he is retiring from fiction writing after completing this Mafia trilogy, said it is time for him to step off that stage to focus more on public policy.
“We’re in an existential crisis for democracy around the world but particularly here at home,” he said. “I think this is going to be a fight. It’s a fight we have to win, and I wanted to devote more time and energy to that fight.”
Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. Today, he is a senior reporter for Gambling.com. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.
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