American crime author Don Winslow has made a name for himself with books about Mexican drug cartels and about the police. In City on Fire, the first in a projected trilogy, he turns his attention to organised crime in America, and in particular the gang wars between Italian and Irish crime families. But he does this in a classical mode, riffing on the Iliad and Aeneid – the classic Greek tales of the battle for and fall of Troy.
City on Fire opens in the 1980s with the narrative’s Helen of Troy, Pam, emerging from the waves of a Rhode Island beach and catching the attention of the Murphy and Ryan clans who are holidaying there. Pam, it turns out, is with Pauli Moretti, a key player in the local Italian mafia but has caught the attention of Liam Murphy, the youngest and most impulsive of the Murphy family. Soon the relationship between Pam and Liam has ignited a gang war between the two Providence crime syndicates. Caught in the middle is protagonist Danny Ryan whose alcoholic father used to run the Irish gang but who now has to settle for advisor and foot solider even while married to gang leader John Murphy’s daughter.
Those who know the story of Troy will recognise where Winslow has referenced various events and characters. This includes a character who foretells a disastrous future who is actually called Cassandra but also stand ins for main players like Achilles, Priam and Hector and events including, of course, a mob version of the Trojan Horse. But the beauty of the original stories is that they are timeless, they build on human nature, so while they provide an outline for Winslow to play with they also give him plenty of space to create his own story.
Winslow effortlessly captures the time and place, the cadences of language and the relative morals of the characters (you can’t whack someone in a hospital, families are off limits, the war pauses for funerals). And he gives a cinematic feel to the action. So that it is no wonder that City on Fire is one of many Winslow properties that is currently being turned into a movie or television series.
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