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The opportunities for extra income for the young Providence worker on the waterfront and his Irish-American family and friends in the Dogtown neighborhood are limited to theft by the harbor, which is nowhere near as lucrative as gambling, truck hijacking, loan-sharing, protection and strip clubs . the Italian mob has a monopoly. And it is the mafia that is associated with judges, poles and officers. In the 1980s, a ceasefire between ethnic gangs had lasted for decades – Danny himself moonlighting helped lift a truckload of Armani suits to gangland rival Peter Moretti – until Danny’s naughty brother-in-law, Liam, drunk grabbed Moretti’s girlfriend’s chest at a gathering at the ocean. To begin with, comic, so horrific, this insult sets in motion a series of escalating power movements, betrayals and bloody murders that constitute a kind of great war for control of organized crime between New York and Boston.
Ryan has the appearance of a moral conscience, but this is news among his family and friends. Boss Pasco Ferri raped her niece when she was 14. Two officers hire a gay hustler to help them blackmail a rival, and instead of paying the guy, they stuff him in the trunk of a stolen car and push it down into a pond. Racism is just as common as the misogyny that makes most of the young mob wives little more than sex doll-like possessions. Only Danny Ryan’s mother, who left him and her alcoholic husband and shows up later to seek forgiveness, is a woman with her own mind. She has the moral complexity as Carmela Soprano, but makes fewer compromises.
Winslow briefly describes Danny’s sad father, the broken-down drunken former leader of the Irish mob in Dogtown, with something as prosaic as the shopping list Danny uses on his weekly visits to the old man. Danny will bring Marty Ryan’s “bacon, eggs, coffee, milk, bread, his Luckies, his Bushmills, his Sam Adams, his Hormel corned beef hash, his lottery tickets.” There’s not much more Danny needs to know about his father than what’s on that list.
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The current boss of the Irish gang, John Murphy, is not in much better shape. He knows that the mafia has his people outnumbered and shot out, and that their days are numbered. As the murders escalate, there is an attempt at a ceasefire where the Irish and Italian bosses meet in a mafia clubhouse. None of them look up as the Murphy company enters the room and sits across the table; they just stare into the water jugs, as if there are some beautiful tropical fish in them or something. “
The bandland story is fascinating and seems to be loosely based on the rise and fall of the real Patriarca family. But it is Winslow’s way of using character, as well as his fluid narrative and very visual stage setting, that suggests that this first novel in a planned trilogy could very well end up in the American mob canon along with the works of Puzo, Scorsese and Chase. Winslow’s “Cartel Trilogy” is a go-to place for a look into the Mexican drug wars; now he performs a similar job on one of the more corrupt sides of Rhode Island, where he grew up.
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In an author’s note, Winslow says as he read Aeschylus: “I saw every theme we deal with in modern crime: power, murder, revenge, corruption, justice, and redemption.” He imagined contemporary counterparts to the characters in the Greek classics and “became obsessed with the idea of retelling their stories in a modern trilogy.” Danny Ryan has been known for murder, revenge and corruption. Will he find “redemption?” Read “City on Fire” – and then follow along.
Richard Lipez wrote the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson. His latest book is “Knock Off the Hat.” He completed this review shortly before his death on March 16th.
William Morrow, 351 pp. $ 28.99
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