Mysteries: Don Winslow’s City on Fire review

Don Winslow’s most recent combustible crime chronicle, City on Fire, is set in Providence, RI in the 1980’s. Here a gang of Irish crooks and a family of Italian criminals pursue a cooperative business arrangement; They conduct their business in the watchful shadow of the Boston and New York syndicates who would like to take over their businesses.

It’s all hilarious until one of the Italians shows up with a beautiful Connecticut realtor and one of the Irish guys starts roughing her up. What begins as a dispute turns into a violent clash and then a war of opportunistic rivals.

One observes with dismay the central character of the novel, Danny Ryan, a mid-level soldier on the Irish side. In his 20s, married for five years, Danny’s motto is, “I just want to make a living.” His game plan, “I have no ambition unless we all survive this thing.” But as the carnage escalates, “good ol’ Danny ‘ Forced into a leadership role.

Crime canon has no shortage of memorable mob sagas from masters like Puzo, Ellroy, and Lehane. City of Fire, with its wide cast of memorable characters and understated nods to classic literature, asserts Mr. Winslow’s well-deserved place in those ranks. The book showcases earthy eroticism, raw ethnic humor and a cyclical worldview as old as Preacher: “The tide comes in, the tide goes out,” says Danny’s retired mobster father. “You go through war, you go through peace. You enjoy the peace while it lasts, you try to survive the war. That’s all you can do.”

The Berlin Stock Exchange

By Joseph Canon


320 pages

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The disaffected protagonists in Joseph Kanon’s Cold War thrillers generally find themselves caught between a rock and a moral dilemma. The man so trapped in 1963’s The Berlin Exchange is Martin Keller, an American physicist who leaked atomic bomb secrets to the Russians and was imprisoned by the British. Now, after more than a decade, he was released by the East Germans in a prisoner exchange for a few low-ranking Westerners.

Everything about Martin’s release seems distorted. His German ex-wife Sabine, who tricked him into spying but evaded capture herself, is now married to Kurt, the smooth lawyer who arranged Martin’s transfer. Martin and Sabine’s son, Peter, is now a well-known actor in a popular East German television series. Peter considers Martin “a socialist hero”, but the physicist feels more like “a pawn being moved by someone else”.

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Martin is unequivocally informed that he is to pay for his new life with services rendered – first, by reporting to his old Russian superior about the actions and opinions of another former colleague. “I won’t,” Martin replies. “None of that. I don’t care.” He was told, “That’s not an option.” Then, suddenly, Martin becomes Kurt’s unintentional accomplice in a deadly crime that transcends ideology and eludes detection (for now). “It didn’t matter . . . who was guilty, who actually did it. . . . Kurt’s life was in his hands now. And his in Kurt’s.”

Martin draws on his scientific and espionage training to devise a plan to escape this double bind: “Keep it simple. The more steps there were, the greater the likelihood that something would go wrong.” But who to trust and who to trick? In this oh so dark story, Martin must do whatever it takes to stay out of jail – and worse.

Three Debts Paid: A Novel by Daniel Pitt

By Anne Perry

Ballantine books

304 pages

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Three Debts Paid, Anne Perry’s fifth novel starring lawyer Daniel Pitt, takes us back to 1912 England. Horse-drawn carriages share space on the boulevard with cars while the innovative ‘underground’ rumbles beneath the streets. 27-year-old Daniel’s latest client is his favorite former Cambridge professor, a historian who “had a way of bringing the past to life and making it pulsate with vitality”. The man is accused of attacking a rival author who accused him of plagiarism.

But Daniel’s pre-trial attention is diverted by the return after a year abroad of Miriam Fford Croft, now a fully accredited forensic pathologist and the object of Daniel’s undeclared affection. Soon, both Miriam and Daniel become embroiled in the events surrounding the “Rainy-Day Slasher,” a vicious killer whose methods revive fading memories of Jack the Ripper.

“This case . . . hung all over London,” notes Miriam. “Even the young police officers . . . were saddened by it. They all sensed the unreasonable violence and the anger behind it.” , who took classes from the same Cambridge professor Daniel is defending, Miriam and Daniel provide the young detective with professional and informal support as the three ponder different scenarios underlying the slasher’s crimes: are the victims random or are they hanged together? Could there be more than one killer? Could some of the dead be diversionary tactics killed to disguise the slasher’s true goal?

The prolific Ms. Perry is adept at evoking the looks and moods of her books’ select periods, and her characters, from working class to upper class, are well drawn and engaging. Here she is particularly good at conveying the difference between a student and a practitioner: “Now everything was real,” reflects Daniel, “real tragedies, real guilt. . . And in some cases, real death.” If the solution to the “three debts paid” mystery feels a little far-fetched, it packs an undeniable jolt.

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