City on Fire by Don Winslow – Book Review

City on Fire by Don Winslow – Book Cover

The Godfather – in Miniature

Don Winslow’s mafia novel, City on Fire, is essentially a watered-down version of The Godfather. Most of the motifs present in that classic novel appear here as well, such as:

• Mafia family wars over territory
• The unifying strength of family and blood ties
• The issue of succession, where the heir is, of course, not the most suitable candidate
• The drug trade as the path to big money, with the promise of big downfall

Since The Godfather is such a magnificent and unparalleled novel, you might be inclined to settle for even a reduced version, especially when it comes from the pen of Don Winslow, the author of the monumental The Power of the Dog trilogy. This time, with Irish and Italian mobsters clashing.

Small-Town Gangsters

Okay, but still. The fact that City on Fire is set in Providence, Rhode Island, also known as Dogtown, somehow diminishes initial expectations. Providence, squeezed between New York and Boston, is small and insignificant in comparison. Prostitution, gambling, and the docks are the main sources of money around there.

The Irish Murphy family is too squeamish for prostitution, so they stick to loan sharking and the docks. Plus the union. To make ends meet, they also have to pull off a few heists themselves. This is not exactly on par with Goodfellas. Michael Corleone didn’t rob trucks himself. In short, the Murphy family mostly plays in the minor leagues.

Are All Mobsters Stupid?

Obviously not. I don’t want to insult them without reason, as everyone makes a living as they can.

But the Murphys of Dogtown are definitely idiots, that’s for sure.

“- Liam, don’t.” they say.

“- Liam, don’t do it!” they plead more emphatically.

Of course, talking to Liam, who wanders among the family members like a ticking time bomb (and probably has this phrase tattooed on his private parts), is futile. Liam just keeps doing what he does.

Now, if you were running the Providence Murphy clan, you would have sent Liam to Anchorage a long time ago with a one-way ticket and the stern warning that if he ever sets foot in his hometown again, he’d be nailed above the bar counter at Gloc’s.

But you’re not in charge.

City on Fire – But More Smoke than Fire

The prolonged mafia war in Don Winslow’s City on Fire… well, it drags on for a long time. And you get a rather detailed description of these events. Although Winslow squeezes the maximum possible out of the tight confines (small city, small mafia), overall nothing happens that you could call significant. Reluctant truces are followed by new skirmishes, unexpected alliances form and dissolve, and the Irish and Italian gangsters keep dropping like flies. Is this going to continue until the predictably sad end?

All Your Hopes Rest on Danny Ryan

Well, Danny Ryan saves City on Fire. We know Don Winslow is a good writer. Okay, a VERY good writer. Thus, the melancholic narration of Danny Ryan, who is half-outside the circle and groaning under the weight of predestination, draws you into the events, making you feel like you’re a struggling but determined Irish mobster in Dogtown.

Besides Danny, almost all the prominent characters are women. His wife Terri, his mother Madeline, and even Cassie and Pam, who emerges from the sea like Venus and is the catalyst for the war, receive much more attention than the men involved in the conflict.

Women Behind – and Ahead of – the Men

The prominence of women undeniably makes City on Fire more varied, yet it sometimes feels like deepening these characters wasn’t entirely necessary. This is most evident with Madeline, whom Winslow disproportionately focuses on, considering her marginal impact on events in Providence.

On the other hand, when Danny Ryan’s mother intervenes in the war between the two sides, it’s a direct borrowing from The Power of the Dog trilogy. And it wasn’t believable there either. Even less so here.

Cassie, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. What you learn about her past could turn everything upside down. You wait and wait for this to happen; however, it never does.

You Can’t Even Rest Your Hopes on Danny Ryan Anymore

No matter how well and enjoyably Don Winslow writes, it’s hard to root for the Irish mafia in Dogtown when they practically bring their downfall upon themselves. But you still do. Until they make another blunder.

It’s not beneficial for any organization if the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. Now imagine how true this is for the mafia. You, for instance, arrange a truce with someone, only for your pals to try to blow up the same person on the same day. What thoughtlessness!

From this point on, you root for the Italians. The Murphys simply don’t deserve to run anything more serious organization than a fish stand near the docks of Dogtown.

No Fate But What You Make

The ending of City on Fire unfolds strangely. From the start, Winslow’s book is pervaded by a sense of impending doom, foreshadowing the protagonists’ inglorious downfall, so you don’t hope for much else. Yet Winslow still surprises with a decidedly unpredictable and unexpected conclusion.

Danny Ryan has had years to decide the fate of himself and his family. But when he finally makes this decision, it happens at the last, LAST possible moment. Too late. Thus, it feels entirely unconvincing.

Final Verdict

Don Winslow’s City on Fire is the work of a great writer. The author knows the world of crime inside and out. The decisive, dynamic, yet emotionally engaging writing, the characters worthy of a better fate, and the seemingly inevitable doom captivate the reader. However, it feels like the plot consistently lags behind the style. Thus, a slight sense of disappointment accompanies the life-and-death struggle of the Irish gangsters.

Rating: 8.2/10

City on Fire (Danny Ryan #1) by Don Winslow
384 pages, Hardcover
Published in 2022 by William Morrow

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