Don Winslow may not have written “City on Fire” in Homeric Greek, but that’s where the differences end between this tour-de-force of the criminal underground and “The Iliad.” Drawing on the epic Greek tragedy for the literary take of his new novel — the first of a trilogy — Winslow cuts deep into two warring criminal empires both vying for control of New England and it’s not only blood, but deception, betrayal and dishonor that flow from the wounds.
A fierce, biting read, “City on Fire” (William Morrow) centers on 1980s-era Providence, R.I., where the Irish Murphy and Italian Moretti crime syndicates have conspired to share the spoils of the city. The Irish keep to the docks, unions and loan sharking while the Italians work gambling, drugs and protection schemes. In a deal brokered by the heads of the families, Jacky Moretti and John Murphy, the gangs keep to their turfs while alcohol and cigarettes wind their way from the docks to clubs, with everyone getting a piece.
Casting a shadow on the arrangement is the next generation of Morettis and Murphys. Looking to advance their own reputations and interests in a flex of muscle, the tension between sons Pat and Liam Murphy and Peter and Paul Moretti is a hair-trigger’s touch from war.
That touch comes in the form of Pam, a beautiful woman and a modern-day Helen of Troy who Danny Ryan, a member of the Murphy gang, knew at first sight would be trouble. Danny’s right, and when Liam makes a move for Pam, who’s already attached to Peter, the tension escalates into full-fledged gang war.
Nobody writes that war like Winslow. We saw this in both “The Cartel” and in “The Force” and we see it here; layers of story and a large cast of characters develop, fuse and evaporate as Danny moves to centerstage. A reluctant longshoreman and leg-breaker who detests the fighting and killing, Danny longs to get out of the life and take his ill wife and son away from the violence.
But it’s Danny, not the sons, who shows himself most adept at heading the family. “Think, Danny tells himself. Think like a leader,” and he does, putting together divergent connections that give both a satisfying end to this novel and set up the next.
Seemingly determined to thwart the notion that there is “no honor among thieves,” Danny matures in this novel as a tragic hero whose fatal flaw might be compassion — an Achilles heel that could ultimately sink or save his Irish soul.
Recently, Winslow agreed to speak with a reviewer about his new novel. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Mayer: Your new novel is a contemporary take on “The Iliad.” What is it about that ancient form that resonates with readers today. Any why did you specifically decide to adapt it to “City on Fire?”
Don Winslow: Let me answer those questions in reverse, if that’s OK. When I read “The Iliad” as an adult, what struck me were the parallels to things that had happened in the real world of crime. I mean, amazingly so. And then as I started to read others of the classics, particularly the “Aeneid,” but also “The Odyssey” and Greek tragic drama, I saw more and more of the stories that you could tell as gangster stories — because they happened. So I had this idea: Could I write this — you know, this is the first book of a trilogy — could I write three novels that would stand alone as crime novels — you can read these as crime novels and have no reference to the classics at all — but could I write them and echo these stories and characters from the classics in which I found so many parallels?
Why do they resonate with people today? The classics are classics for a reason, because they’re timeless and they speak to our humanity. All of the themes that we deal with in modern crime fiction, modern fiction period, honor, dishonor, love, hate, betrayal, compassion, revenge, power, subjugation — they are all there in the classics. And so I think that they’ve lasted for thousands of years because they speak to humanity. Right now, watching Ukraine and Kyiv, I feel like I’m watching the siege of Troy. We see these themes over and over and over again through human history, and that’s why they’re classics and that’s why they’ve lasted.
TM: We can’t look at Homer’s “Iliad” or Virgil’s “Aeneid” without comparing Danny Ryan to the Trojan hero, Aeneas. Like all tragic heroes, Danny’s a self-contradiction. How interesting to you as an author was it to develop the yin and yang of his character?
DW: Well, that was the biggest challenge, and the greatest fun of it. I chose Aeneas very deliberately because he was a man who was sort of in it, but not of it. If you read “The Iliad,” he’s a minor player. He marries into the royal family, but he’s not really one of them. And I love that outsider’s kind of perspective.
But also in writing Danny, here was this guy who wanted very simple things out of life. Danny just wants a decent job and to raise his family, but because of his feelings of loyalty, he’s drawn to become something else — to become this fighter. And that internal conflict I found fascinating and, I hope, interesting for the reader.
We often forget that the end of the fall of Troy’s not told in “The Iliad.” It’s told by Aeneas in “The Aeneid,” and he’s talking to Dido, the tragic queen of Carthage, when he says, “sorrow unspeakable sorrow, my queen, you ask me to bring to life once more.” She asked him about his past. And he tells this incredibly touching sad story about what happened, and I found that to be so poignant. I thought, this would be the character of a man who has lost so much, but he’s still fighting and struggling to take care of his aging father, his infant son, what’s left of his friends and wandering the world trying to find a place to set their feet down.
TM: Something you do very well with your characters is building on the losses of their pasts. Danny’s sense of loyalty is probably built out of his birth betrayal. Is that fair?
DW: Absolutely. No question about it. It is the yin and yang of him. Again, it comes from the classics. Aphrodite abandoned her son, Aeneas. He was raised by his father. I found that fascinating in the classics, but then I had to find the modern equivalent for it. Who would she be? Why would she abandon this child and give him up. And how would he feel about it, particularly when she comes back into his life in a very powerful way. So, you have these resentments, but he’s also probably feeling some gratitude for her help. I love those internal conflicts with him. I think they make him an interesting guy.
TM: Well, of course, you also put him in do-or-die circumstances. …
DW: That’s the great thing about crime fiction. It’s why I love the genre so much. We get to see humankind in extremis. We get to see life-and-death situations. And again, I think that that does something in terms of exposing character.
TM: Other characters, especially some of the females, like Danny’s mother, Madeline, or sister-in-law, Cassie, seem ripe for development. Fair?
DW: You’ll see them in the next two books. They, to me, were fascinating characters. As a man, it’s always a bit daunting. You’re always a bit reluctant: Can I write a woman character, a female character well? Do I have a right to do it? But it’s unavoidable in this situation, and I also found them to be very compelling. Once you start giving them pasts, and again, their pasts are based on the pasts that we get from mythology and from other works so, it’s one thing to write that Aphrodite is the great goddess of love, but another thing to look into her and what happened to her. And the same with Cassie. She is given the gift of prophecy in exchange for being molested, as in the classics, and she’s the one who’s talking to people and trying to tell them, “Don’t do this. I see what’s going to happen. I see the harm.” And, you know, “Take another look at your lives.” But yes, those two characters will very much carry over into the next books.
TM: It’s very poignant what Cassie tells Danny about his soul at the end of the book.
DW: Thank you, thank you. In “The Iliad” its Cassandra who says don’t bring the Trojan horse in, and they ignore her. It’s Cassie who she says to Danny, you shouldn’t be doing this. And he knows it, he knows. And he’s torn about it. And that will go through the next three books, too. He looks at that as the sort of sin that just stays with him forever — and does.
TM: In a lot of ways, this novel is a period piece. The story centers on the docks and alleys of 1980s Providence, R.I., with Irish and Italian gangs and all the honor, loyalty and fidelity that involves. You’re famous for your research, sometimes taking years and travels south of the border, to understand and write a story. How did you immerse yourself into this one?
DW: Walking out the door; stepping into the past. I grew up in the era of the New England crime wars. These people are all familiar to me. It took me having lived out here in California for the better part of 30 years. It took me some time though, to get back into the patois, into the jargon, the accents, the rhythm of speech in Rhode Island. That took a while. But for the most part, it was it was a matter of memory and a matter of walking around the settings of the book. You can you can get into a car or a plane but you can’t go into a time machine. So, going up to Providence, there are still some places and restaurants and offices and things that are in the book that still exist. But others don’t. You know, Dogtown has been gone a long, long time. And so, it’s a matter of going back to newspapers and old books and that kind of thing. But the bulk of the research, though, was in classics, was reading literary criticism, listening to lectures, trying to get a deeper understanding of the characters and the themes and the meanings of those books, because I kept just trying (to ask) what’s the modern parallel? It just took a lot of time with those classics and with, you know, scholarly books, if you will, about them.
TM: You impress me. The class I found the most daunting in graduate school was literary criticism, and here we are finding a purpose for it.
DW: I’m addicted to the great courses. Those lectures you can buy online, right? I bought every one on “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey,” the Greek tragedys, all of that, and listened to them obsessively — and they were very useful.
TM: It also impresses me that you might be the most principled writer of violence in current literature. What are the ethics that guide your writing?
DW: I wrestle with it all the time. It’s a really tough one. It’s a tough ethical decision, because on the one hand, I don’t want to sanitize violence. Particularly when I was writing those books about the Mexican drug cartels, I wanted people to understand what was really going on, and not blink at it. On the other hand, you don’t want to slip into what I would call the pornography of violence just for the sake of titillation. It’s a tough, tough road to walk. But basically what I’m what I’m looking for are the consequences of violence. The emotional and psychological and real life consequences of violence. I don’t particularly like murder as a parlor game. But I have to admit it’s a tough one and I struggle with it. More and more I write the results of the violence instead of the violence itself. I write people coming on the scene afterwards and what their reaction is. Having said that, with this book, if you read “The Iliad” — it’s a violent book. The poetry of it is vivid, and I wanted to be true to the spirit of that. So, there are scenes in the book, you know, like in “The Iliad,” when Achilles drags Hector’s body around behind the chariot. In this book (a character) simply gets hits with a car that drags him under. Those are violent scenes to write, and yet, you couldn’t avoid them.
TM: On a softer note, it occurs to me that your dedication page — “To all the deceased of the pandemic. Requiescat in pace” — might be at once the most broad and the most personal I’ve ever seen. Talk about that?
DW: Yeah, I’ll try. I’m feeling a little bit of it today, actually. Kind of an anniversary. Excuse me. My mom died during COVID. And she was in Rhode Island, quite near where the book takes place, actually. She was 94. So look, Thomas, you can’t call that a tragedy, but we were here and we couldn’t go to be with her. We couldn’t go to the funeral. There was no funeral. It was it was just like, OK, your mother died, you know? And I lost other people in COVID. But I just felt that happening, (and as I) sat here and wrote the bulk of these books during the pandemic — and you know, Please God, let it be over. Who knows? — it would have been grotesque not to have acknowledged it. Like, I was sitting here, not on the front lines in a hospital, but sitting either in my office or out on the front porch in Rhode Island writing these books while a million people are dying, and other people are working themselves to utter exhaustion and beyond. So, to me, I felt I had to at least say something, and that’s what I chose. But it was also, yeah, about my mom.
TM: Thank you for sharing that. That’s horrific and wonderful at the same time.
DW: Yeah, listen, we’ve all been through it. You know what we’ve all been through the last few years. I’m by no means unique, you know? But it’s been a tough couple of years, man, for everybody.
TM: The pandemic is why you decided to delay the novel’s release from September 2021 to April of this year, isn’t it?
DW: Yes, yes. Yeah. We couldn’t have done a tour, and that had happened on my last book. I brought out a book called “Broken,” and the very next day the country shut down. And I didn’t want to do that again. Look, all the material things I have in life I owe to readers and booksellers. So, you want to get out there and meet people and say hello and say thank you, and make a connection and answer their questions, and all of that. I didn’t want to bring a book out again and do more Zoom stuff. Which was better than nothing. Thank God we had it. So, yeah, we delayed it by six months.
TM: I’m wondering what that means for the release of the next two novels in the trilogy, which I believe were originally scheduled to release in September 2022 and September 2023.
DW: April and April instead. So, a year from now and a year from that.
TM: Oh, shoot, you’re gonna make me wait a year. I was hoping for a fall release.
TM: Well, it’s worth the wait. You’ve been very gracious with your time today, Don. Thank you.
DW: I appreciate your time. Thank you.
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