Don Winslow has devoted decades of his life to cruelty and crime. He kept coming up with new ways of killing and dying for the protagonists in his novels. Depicted in gory detail the worst humans are capable of, and was hugely successful at it. If one has been doing this for so long, one must have an enormous tolerance for evil. Not so Winslow. He doesn’t want anymore. A few days ago his new book was published, “City on Fire”, the first part of a trilogy, the second and third of which he has already completed. He wants to end his writing career at the age of 68.
But it is not the terrible world of drug cartels and mafia clans that has driven him to abstain from writing. It’s Donald Trump. “In the US, maybe worldwide, we are in an existential crisis of democracy. From now on, I want to invest everything I have talent in the fight for them,” he explains on the phone. And he doesn’t want to fight this battle with books, but with his enormously successful videos, which have so much power that they make his mafia and drug thrillers seem like Elizabethan Bildungsromans. Of the hard-boiled Crime writer who turns into a radical political activist – this career detour is unusual.
“It’s always most interesting to show an environment in decline.”
What is clear, however, is that Winslow is at the height of his ability. “City on Fire” is as exciting as all Winslow books, but much more complex. How many of the countless threads he spins in this first part of his trilogy he picks up again in the second and third remains to be seen.
For Winslow, the grand finale of his career is a homecoming of sorts. The location is the city of Providence in the US state of Rhode Island. He grew up nearby before moving to New York and California. At the time of the action, 1986, the city still had an important port. The two local mafia families also make a living from it with almost righteous-looking modesty: the Irish-born Murphys and the Italian-born Morettis. The former control the docks, the latter the trucking companies, and they also go about their other business, loans and racketeering. The two small-town clans like to see themselves as a kind of social welfare institution from below: When the children in Dogtown, their poor district, need new sneakers, the parents buy the goods that have fallen out of the container from them at a friendly price from the trunk.
The Murphys and the Morettis share a warm enmity, but as descendants of the old immigrant groups, they are also unspoken allies against the hated “Yankees”. And when the old Italian clan boss Pasco Ferri always throws a big barbecue on Labor Day weekend, the Irish are of course invited. With refined affability, Winslow makes his characters appear as if they are just you and me, with their worries: declining marital passions, alcoholism, breast cancer, childhood trauma. But from the very first pages, the ominous signs intensify: after the fishing industry no longer brings in much, the port loses importance. And the heyday of organized crime is over. “It’s always most interesting to show an environment in decline. The less there is left to fight for, the more brutal the fight,” explains Winslow.
And he breaks loose. As soon as a beautiful stranger emerges from the sea in front of the vacationing gangsters, the fragile armistice is over. It acts like the catalyst of a deadly chemical reaction. And not even the level-headed Danny Ryan can stop them, the son of the former clan boss Marty, who never gives up hope of integrating the mafia business into a peaceful, middle-class existence.
“I’m tired of us always bringing spoons to the stabbing”
Winslow neither celebrates nor denounces his heroes. “Some of them I love, some I don’t,” he says. “It’s not my job to make moral judgments about them. I try to let the reader experience their world through their eyes.” But the more broken he portrays this world, the more the reader wonders why Winslow doesn’t even tell the life of a cellist or that of an archaeologist. Winslow laughs and says, “I write mysteries, that’s my genre,” like he’s a plumber who doesn’t have to explain why he can’t build a table. And then he comes up with an explanation: “Crime stories are about people in extremis, people in difficult and serious situations that show their character. The genre also allows me to explore social issues.”
Wouldn’t it be more obvious, instead of changing the medium right now, to try a different genre, to write political thrillers or that gripping nonfiction, that has such a big tradition in America? “Others can do that better,” Winslow dismisses. And also: “Clausewitz said that you should always fight on the battlefield of your choice. But that’s not always possible. Now social media is the battlefield. Perhaps my ability to write short, sharp sentences is quite suitable Therefore.”
Winslow started the videos during the last American presidential campaign. 250 million people have already seen it on YouTube. He is producing it with author Shane Salerno, who has written the screenplays for Armageddon, Avatar, Shaft, and the film adaptation of Winslow’s drug novel Savages, among others. Winslow’s sentence blows and Salerno’s blockbuster dramaturgy actually lead to an overwhelmingly effective art of drasticity.
Whether it’s biting sarcasm, beatings below the belt, or dripping kitsch, the two will stop at nothing to attack right-wing candidates, members of the Trump family, or Republicans. They mock them with unmasking images, newspaper clippings and embarrassing video sequences. They fuel their etching with string sauce, drum rolls, bass bombs and the rest of Hollywood’s sound arsenal. But the goosebumps effect of these mostly about two-minute clips is mainly due to Winslow’s sentences: As in one of the recent videos, which shoots against Ivanka Trump: “Ivanka Trump is a fraud. Everything about her life is a lie,” the words to embarrassing pictures of Trump’s daughter rattled as if from a drilled exhaust. “She learned how to cheat from the world’s biggest liar. She’s anti-women, she’s anti-American.” And, as they usually do towards the end of their spots, Winslow and Salerno really turn the volume up towards the end: “It’s not for America, it’s not for women, she is only for Ivanka.”
Winslow does not accept that with these hyper-aggressive attacks he could lose those viewers who would be most receptive to his messages: “You can find that aggressive,” he says, “but I’m tired of the fact that we always come to the stabbing with spoons the other side is willing to do and say anything and we always want to be so kind and so reasonable why should I be nice when people are trying like on 6th January 2021 the democratically elected government of the United States? No, I really have no problem punching them in the face, metaphorically speaking. They need it.” Winslow knows how to place punches correctly.