With the publication of his latest novel city on fire (William Morrow), Don Winslow’s writing career has come full circle. The first of three books featuring Irish and Italian characters involved in organized crime, the stories are set in Rhode Island, where Winslow was born.
This circle, at least for now, is closed. In April, the best-selling author of the cartel and The power of the dog announced that he was retiring as a fiction writer. Through his Don Winslow Films YouTube channel, he plans to produce short videos countering what he perceives to be extremist views that threaten the foundations of American democracy.
“I think we’re at a crisis point in our democracy and our society,” Winslow said in a phone interview, “and we’re going to go one of two ways. Either we are going to guarantee equal rights for all, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, or we are going to slide into this kind of shoddy fascism that the Trump administration represents. So looking at the world right now – and I think I’ve come full circle with my writing – I just thought it was time to dedicate myself to this fight full time.
Set in the 1980s and inspired by The Iliad, City on Fire follows Danny Ryan as he attempts to navigate a life of crime while maintaining some semblance of a moral code. The son of a former Irish mob boss from Providence, Danny lives more or less with the Murphy clan when his father, ravaged by alcohol abuse, is forced to retire.
The loss of status is not lost on Danny.
Instead of being a prince, Danny is some kind of minor duke or something, writes Winslow.
Danny’s loyalty to the Murphys sometimes clashes with his principles. Not to mention that his income is reduced.
“I think Danny’s tragic flaw is loyalty,” Winslow says. “He’s loyal to the Murphy family who kind of adopted him. … He’s loyal to his ethnicity, to his neighborhood, certainly to his wife, to his child and even to his father, whom he doesn’t love. Not even because he was so negligent. And I think that loyalty leads Danny to do things he knows he shouldn’t do.
When a mysterious woman – a nod to Helen of Troy – appears, she drives a wedge between the Irish and Italian factions of Providence. Danny frantically tries to hold it all together, his methods often questionable, but in service of what he believes to be right.
In some ways, Danny is reminiscent of other Winslow characters – DEA agent Art Keller from his Cartel trilogy, retired hitman Frank Machianno from The Frankie Machine’s Winter, and Boone Daniels, the private investigator/surfer of The Dawn Patrol and Gentleman’s hour.
“I think the central question for me in whodunit, and for these characters, is how do you try to live decently in an indecent world?” said Winslow. “And I think that question is always on the minds of these characters as they try to navigate their way through these things. What’s the right thing to do? What’s the wrong thing to do? This doesn’t is not always clear, there is no clear line.
There is, however, clarity about Winslow’s next project. Don Winslow Films has produced short videos ranging from The Truth About Ivanka to Texas’ War on Women to America Needs Pennsylvania, the latter a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen. They are short, punchy and direct, a way of countering arguments and attacks from conservatives.
“These right-wing people are bullies,” Winslow says. “They’re very, very tough until you punch them in the nose, metaphorically speaking, of course, and then they’re not so tough.”
He adds that he was “very comforted” by Mich. Sen. Mallory McMorrow a few weeks ago when they teased her about grooming children to be sexually abused.
“She got up and she fought back,” he said. “We need to do a lot more, a lot more often.”