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Don Winslow is giving up novels for politics. His latest book is a gem.

Winslow, who announced he is leaving publishing, has just come out with a masterwork of mob fiction, ‘City on Fire’

(Robert Gallagher; William Morrow)

Don Winslow’s terrific new novel, “City on Fire,” does for Rhode Island what David Chase’s “The Sopranos” did for New Jersey. The Ocean State’s Chambers of Commerce won’t necessarily see it as a favor.

Danny Ryan, the novel’s intermittently decent-hearted, otherwise amoral protagonist, says things like the state motto of Rhode Island is “I know a guy.” Or maybe it’s: “If you were supposed to know, you’d know.” And there’s this: “Another first, Danny thought — someone using ‘opportunities’ and ‘Rhode Island’ in the same sentence.”

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The extra-income opportunities for young Providence waterfront worker Danny and his Dogtown-neighborhood Irish American family and pals are limited to dockside pilferage, which is not nearly as lucrative as gambling, truck hijacking, loan-sharking, protection and strip clubs, over which the Italian mob has a monopoly. And it’s the Mafia that’s connected to judges, pols and cops.

In the 1980s, a truce between the ethnic gangs had held for decades — Danny even moonlights helping jack a truckload of Armani suits for gangland-rival Peter Moretti — until Danny’s buffoonish brother-in-law, Liam, drunkenly grabs Moretti’s girlfriend’s breast at a seaside get-together. Comically at first, then horribly, this insult sets in a motion escalating power moves, betrayals and bloody murders constituting a kind of Great War over control of organized crime between New York and Boston.

Danny has a semblance of a moral conscience, but this is a novelty among his family and pals. Boss Pasco Ferri raped his niece when she was 14. Two operatives hire a gay hustler to help them blackmail a rival, and instead of paying the guy, they stuff him in the trunk of a stolen car and shove it into a pond. Racism is as commonplace as the misogyny that makes most of the young mob wives little more that sex-doll-like possessions. Only Danny Ryan’s mother, who abandoned him and her alcoholic husband and shows up later seeking forgiveness, is a woman with a mind of her own. She has the moral complexity of Carmela Soprano but makes fewer compromises.

Winslow succinctly describes Danny’s sad dad, the broken-down-drunk former head of the Irish mob in Dogtown, with something as prosaic as the grocery list Danny uses on his weekly visits to the old man. Danny is to bring Marty Ryan’s “bacon, eggs, coffee, milk, bread, his Luckies, his Bushmills, his Sam Adams, his Hormel corned beef hash, his lotto tickets.” There’s not much more Danny needs to know about his father than what’s on that list.

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The current boss of the Irish gang, John Murphy, isn’t in much better shape. He knows that the Mafia has his people outnumbered and outgunned and that their days are numbered. As the murders escalate, there’s an attempt at a truce in which the Irish and Italian bosses meet at a Mafia clubhouse. “None of them look up as the Murphy party comes into the room and sits down across the table; they just stare into the water pitchers like there’s some pretty tropical fish in them or something.”

The gangland history is fascinating and seems to be based loosely on the rise and fall of the real-life Patriarca family. But it’s Winslow’s ways with character, as well as his fluid narrative and highly visual scene-setting, that suggest this novel, the first in a planned trilogy, could well end up in the American-mob canon along with the works of Puzo, Scorsese and Chase. Winslow’s “Cartel Trilogy” is a go-to place for a look inside the Mexican drug wars; now he’s doing a similar job on one of the more depraved aspects of Rhode Island, where he grew up. (This week, Winslow announced that he has decided to give up writing to focus full-time on politics. He will publish the second book in the trilogy in April 2023 and the last in April 2024.)

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In an author’s note, Winslow says that, when he read Aeschylus, “I saw every theme that we treat in modern crime fiction: power, murder, vengeance, corruption, justice and redemption.” He imagined contemporary counterparts to the characters in the Greek classics and “became obsessed with the idea of retelling their stories in a modern trilogy.” Danny Ryan has known murder, vengeance and corruption. Will he find “redemption?” Read “City on Fire” — then stay tuned.

Richard Lipez wrote the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson. His most recent book is “Knock Off the Hat.” He completed this review shortly before his death on March 16.

This story has been updated.

City on Fire

By Don Winslow

William Morrow, 384 pp. $28.99

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