The new gangster novel is a wild ride

Drug Cartels, Dirty Cops, and Mid-Level Gangsters: They’re Novelists Don Winslow‘s people, the people who fill his books with moral dilemmas and festering grudges. Entering Winslow’s world is like getting on a fast-moving train of trouble. These books – including his latest, “City on Fire” (William Morrow, 384 pp., ★★★½ out of four, out Tuesday) — are adrenalized plot machines whose pages seem to turn by themselves.

“City on Fire” is a modern take on “The Iliad,” except the woman in the center doesn’t launch a thousand ships. Instead, she is the unwitting instigator of a bloody war between Irish and Italian gangsters in 80s and 90s Providence, Rhode Island. Once they’re liquidated, however, no one seems to really remember or care how it all started. Like so many wars, this one is built on pride and self-motivation.

“The end is great”:Bob Odenkirk talks about a new book and says goodbye to Saul Goodman

Winslow sets the table by ushering in a fragile alliance between friends and associates. The Murphy family and their deputy Danny Ryan have seen better days. Danny’s dad, Marty, used to run the show, but now he’s deep in a whiskey bottle. Meanwhile, the Moretti boys, Peter and Paulie, are on the rise, and they’ve got the racquets to prove it. So when Peter has a hot-headed argument with Liam Murphy over Pam, a new girl in town, the Irish are at a distinct disadvantage.

Winslow knows how to put a dozen subplots and characters into motion and keep them moving. There’s Sal, the Moretti’s top killer who just happens to be a closeted homosexual (shades of “The Sopranos” and Vito Spatafore). There’s Danny’s mother, Madeleine, who could fill her own romance: a Vegas showgirl who learned to play the power game but never got her son to forgive him for his absence.

Sometimes these characters promise more than they deliver. Winslow introduces so many events that some of them get stuck before they can come in and create a win. They make a hell of a first impression – Madeleine’s introduction is a mini masterpiece in itself – and then get lost in the hubbub. In this sense, Winslow is a victim of his own abundance.

Don Winslow

But what abundance. A row of murderer characters run through these pages, each with their own backstory, each playing off an angle. Power struggles give way to other power struggles; kills reverberate and force players to adjust their strategies and flirt with the enemy. You get caught up in one subplot, then watch it morph into another. Winslow is a master plotter and character shaper. You don’t read “City on Fire” as much as you let it take you for a ride.

“Step away from the ledge”:A daughter’s search for truth and renewal after her mother’s suicide

Danny is the moral center, if such a thing is possible in this gruesome shoot-’em-up. He was forgotten when his father fell into alcoholism: “Instead of being a prince, Danny is some kind of underage duke or something.” He is a good husband and an enthusiastic future father. Now he bides his time, knowing he is smarter than his enemies and lords, who all respect him, even if they don’t fear him. In this world, he passes for a good guy.

Winslow leaves this story ripe for more chapters – it feels like the first part of a trilogy – and, as usual, he leaves the reader wanting more. You wouldn’t want to hang out with these mobsters in real life, but they’re great company on the page.

Irene B. Bowles