What is it about the beautiful women of crime fiction that makes them worth killing for? Three very different tragic beauties inspire violence ranging from explosive expressions of jealousy in Ocean State and The Big Clock to the collateral damage of Mob warfare in Don Winslow’s City on Fire.
In a foreword, Winslow explains that this is the first book in a planned trilogy inspired by the Iliad, but instead of Homer’s heroes of ancient Greece battling for Troy, he gives us Irish mobsters warring with their Italian counterparts in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1986. It’s a smart move away from familiar New York–New Jersey territory to a lesser city in the organized-crime hierarchy, vividly rendered by Winslow in all its scruffy glory.
The Moretti and Murphy crime families have enjoyed a relatively peaceful coexistence for years, with the Italians running trucking and the Irish controlling the docks, along with other small-time rackets. The better-connected and better-funded Italians have the edge, which is mutually understood.
But when a blonde goddess from Connecticut (the Helen of Troy figure), who’s been dating one of the young Morettis, emerges from the sea like Christie Brinkley on the half-shell at the beach where both families are gathered, the balance is upset. Reckless, “Kennedy handsome” Liam Murphy has to have Moretti’s woman, whatever the repercussions. This violation of the Mob code of honor sets off a vicious and drawn-out war that will claim many casualties and destroy families.
Winslow’s Aeneas is Danny Ryan, a dockworker who grew up with the Murphy kids and married into the family. He’s a good soldier, calmer and more thoughtful than the others, who has to step up after the Murphy family suffers a loss. The story is told from his point of view, so we know that Danny is keenly aware of the defeatist curse of his people: “If it was raining soup, the Irish would run outside with forks.”
It’s not necessary to know the Iliad to appreciate City on Fire. It’s a fierce, thoroughly engrossing gangster saga purely on its own terms, but a basic familiarity with Homer’s characters can’t hurt. I especially liked how Winslow re-casts Aphrodite as Danny’s mother, Madeline, a gorgeous Las Vegas showgirl who abandoned him as a baby but returns to her son’s life as a powerful figure who wields wealth and influence. Madeline is no one’s victim, and I hope we see more of her in the trilogy’s next installment.
When a blonde goddess emerges from the sea like Christie Brinkley on the half-shell at the beach where the warring mobsters of City on Fire are gathered, the balance is upset.
Vengeance plays out on a smaller but no less affecting scale in Stewart O’Nan’s Ocean State. We’re still in Rhode Island but far from the fireworks of Providence, in the working-class town of Ashaway, where another woman disrupts the fragile status quo and pays dearly for it. There’s no mystery about the book’s central event, as revealed in its first sentence: “When I was in eighth grade, my sister helped kill another girl.”
The speaker is Marie, talking about her older sister, Angel. The beautiful Angel and her boyfriend, Myles, are their high school’s golden couple—he’s a stoner-y rich kid, and she’s a tall blonde volleyball player from the wrong side of the tracks who suspects he will leave her behind when he graduates.
Angel is right about his fickleness. He is seeing someone on the side, a bright, lively girl named Birdy Alves from a Portuguese family. They rendezvous secretly at his parents’ beach house, and Birdy is so infatuated that she makes the fatal error of turning Angel into an abstraction—“the Girlfriend”—and fails to realize how dangerous her rival really is.
As the novel tracks the weeks leading up to the killing, it’s excruciatingly sad to see Birdy living out the final days of her short life—goofing around with her dog, working at a pizza joint, playing soccer—and quite unsettling to watch Angel’s brutally matter-of-fact scheme unfold.
Even after she’s been arrested, Angel feels no remorse: “A part of her wanted the little bitch dead.” There’s obviously something wrong with this girl beyond the usual hormonal teenage acting out, but O’Nan offers no diagnosis beyond her family’s struggles, and in keeping with his pared-down, lightly ironic approach, he avoids judgment. Some readers may be surprised by how the legal process plays out in Ocean State’s dénouement. It’s left up to us to decide whether justice has been done, or if that’s even the point.
A powerful man’s effort to evade justice by placing the blame elsewhere drives the action in Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 noir classic, The Big Clock. Earl Janoth heads the kind of soul-sucking media giant that once strode the avenues of Manhattan in towering skyscrapers full of human cogs like George Stroud, editor of Crimeways magazine. At a party, George catches the eye of Janoth’s elegant girlfriend, Pauline Delos, and embarks on a fling with her.
In Ocean State, another woman disrupts the fragile status quo and pays dearly for it.
Borrowing the boss’s mistress may be George’s way of asserting himself amid the sea of gray flannel suits, but he doesn’t realize what a dangerous game he’s playing. After dropping Pauline off at her apartment one night, he notices Janoth entering the building. The next day, Pauline is found murdered in her living room.
As the obvious suspect, Janoth’s best option is to put someone else in the frame; i.e., the man he noticed lingering in the shadows outside of Pauline’s building when he went in. He decides to throw all his company’s considerable resources into finding this person, and who better to head the hunt than the editor of Crimeways?
So begins a tense and complex game of cat and mouse between George, Janoth, and George’s own handpicked staff. As the clues to his identity begin to pile up and his options tick down, George’s survival depends on keeping his cool in a nightmarish situation.
Borrowing the boss’s mistress may be a way for The Big Clock’s protagonist to assert himself amid a sea of gray flannel suits, but he doesn’t realize what a dangerous game he’s playing.
Fearing’s premise proved irresistible to filmmakers, and spawned several adaptations, one from 1948 that makes the metaphorical clock an actual giant timepiece in the building’s lobby, and another, renamed No Way Out, starring Kevin Costner, which moves the action to 1980s Washington, D.C.
I’ll stick with the book. One of its great attractions is Fearing’s evocation of Manhattan in the 40s, combining the brittle glamour embodied by Pauline with the almost comic amount of psychic stress induced by working for a corporation that looks a lot like Henry Luce’s Time Inc. As George says while trying to think his way out of his dilemma, “I could beat the machine. The super-clock would go on forever, it was too massive to be stopped. But it had no brains, and I did. I could escape from it.”
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City