By the time Dennis Lehane started garnering public attention and huge critical praise for the likes of Mystic River (2001) and Shutter Island (2003) — helped, no doubt, by those two novels being filmed — I couldn’t help but feeling that he’d already done his best work with his first five novels, which featured Boston P.I.s Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.
And so today we take on the first of those:
A Drink Before the War (1994) by Dennis Lehane
How I encountered this book
The same Robert Crais fan forum that introduced me to Harlan Coben was responsible in the exact same way for putting a lot of author names my way for further investigation: John Sandford, Linda Fairstein, George Pelecanos, Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard, T. Jefferson Parker, Janet Evanovich…some of whom I really didn’t like, some of whom I did, some of whom I’ve still not tracked down. Even in this company there seemed to be a sort of reverence reserved for Dennis Lehane, however, whose sixth novel Mystic River seemed only to add to his prestige. Clearly further investigation was necessary.
I first read A Drink Before the War in (probably…) early 2002, and my memory has always been that the plot left me a little underwhelmed but the richness of the writing had blown me away. I hoovered up the other four Kenzie and Gennaro novels, finding some of them more successful than others, enjoyed Shutter Island until the ending had no idea how to reveal itself to the narrative, found Mystic River to be ponderously slow in making some fairly obvious points that seemed old hat to even my callow mind…and then Lehane seemed to take a bit of a break from novel writing, concentrating on the likes of TV’s The Wire (2002-08), and I lost track of him as my tastes moved on. Let’s see if things have changed in the last 20 years.
What’s it about?
P.I.s Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are hired by Senator Sterling Mulkern to track down cleaning woman Jenna Angeline, who has disappeared from Mulkern’s office with some sensitive documents. That’s…sort of it, given that the majority of what occurs never really moves on from finding Jenna or finding the documents she has stashed somewhere secret. Lots of people want those documents, and so there are a few frantic gunfights, and then it turns out that the documents contain evidence of some unpleasant doings — of course they do, these were politicians in the 1990s — and a moral element hoves into view.
Honestly, on a purely plot construction basis, it’s surprising how much DNA this shares with The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987) by Robert Crais from a few weeks ago: find Person X, find the thing Person X stole, stop the people who want to get the thing from getting the thing, learn some lessons along the way. The difference is that Lehane’s book occupies a world more steeped in verisimilitude than Crais’ was, but the sense of broad deja vu is pretty incredible.
Any seeds of detection?
I mean, look…no. For a pair of P.I.s, Patrick and Angie do very little detection or investigation. The finding of Jenna takes up perhaps the first third of the book, with the immediate fallout taking us to the halfway point, Then the documents need to be found, which results in the only two pieces of logical reasoning in the book and both of those are long shots that happen to hit the mark, before one final deduction near the end, coming from information the reader cannot have, ties everything up. One sequence of the pair trying to track down the precise location of the documents leans into grunt work, but it’s pretty basic stuff — go somewhere, fail to find it, go somewhere else, fail to find it… — and unlikely to get anyone too excited about the potential that exists within detective fiction.
When Patrick reflects at one point that…
It goes like this a lot. We sit around the office and bounce ideas off each other and wait for divine intervention. When that doesn’t come, we chase down each possibility, and usually not always, but usually we end up tripping over something that should have been obvious from the beginning.
…it feels like Lehane giving his characters too much credit for applying a rigour to the case-solving that we never actually see. And, weirdly, I don’t think Lehane wanted it to come across like that, because I don’t think he’s even trying to write a novel that relies on detection or the principles thereof. Much as Michael Connelly was for the period I was reading him, Lehane is interested in his city and the divisions therein more than he’s interested in a tight, surprising plot that relies on switchbacks and sudden revelations. Crime is a good way to explore division since it affects everyone to a hugely differing extent, but Lehane’s interest in crime is almost sociological rather than plot-based.
Can you go home?
Reading this a second time, with older and slightly less naive eyes, I can see a lot of what I missed first time around simply by allowing myself to get caught up in Lehane’s milieu of a city I didn’t know (though have since visited) and a type of existence that was largely completely alien to me. The thing I realise now that I missed before: in essence, this book is about violence both in its immediate effect in quelling or suppressing opposition and in the linger effects of generational violence handed down from father to son like a tattered heirloom. It charts both the current socioeconomic divides in a city where the wider the gap grows the worse the situation becomes…
There is a war going on. It’s happening in playgrounds, not health clubs. It’s fought on cement, not lawns. It’s fought with pipes and bottles, and lately, automatic weapons. And as long as it doesn’t push through the heavy oak doors where they fight with prep school educations and filibusters and two-martini lunches, it will never actually exist.
South Central L.A. could burn for a decade, and most people wouldn’t smell the smoke unless the flames reached Rodeo Drive.
…and filial violence that has become so ingrained in Lehane’s blue collar neighbourhoods that the only response is either resignation — c.f. Angie’s repeated returning to her abusive marriage with Patrick’s one-time best fried Phil — or simply greater violence in return. Lehane’s Boston is one where child gang members are already dead behind the eyes at 12 years old, where racial divisions and tensions seem to be scored into the very earth, and where beatings received from older generations (see Devin Amronklin’s speech about his father, or Patrick’s repeated reflections on his own father’s public perception and private reality) are simply inevitable and never questioned. It produces coarse men and women with the sort of broadside reasoning that only breeds greater division, but something in Lehane’s capturing of Boston this way makes it clear how necessary such attitudes feel when it comes to survival. Yes, he acknowledges, they’re also the root of a lot of the problems, but there’s something tragic in the admission here that the only way to cope in such an abyss is to allow it to look deeply into you.
Patrick, then, is very much a product of his environment, and perhaps the most interesting protagonist I’ve yet revisited in these Going Home posts. His capacity for, and nonchalance towards, the violence and coarseness that surrounds him is well-developed, and you won’t get many other narrators admitting that they were screaming racial epithets as they fled in terror from gunfire, and this unapologetic nature has also grown up from the roots of such a hardscrabble existence. He’s glib, of course — this is a 90s crime novel form the US, glibness is almost a requirement — but it’s typically self-directed rather than pithy, coming over in his narratorial reflections than through encounters with other characters as Lehane’s contemporaries Coben and Crais would have basked in.
Patrick Kenzie, great detective, able to terrorize a near-catatonic woman into hysterics. What a guy. For an encore, maybe I’d go back home and mug a nun.
He cares deeply for Angie — to be honest, it’s a little creepy now reading him telling her about how much he wants to bed her, how he loves her, how he thins she’s gorgeous…yeuch — and the two of them have Inevitable Police and Press Connections as well as that other P.I. standby, the Violent Friend Who Will Do Anything And Kill Anyone To Help (though, take a bow Bubba Rogowski, I always found Bubba more believable than the likes of Robert B. Parker’s Hawk, Crais’ Joe Pike — at least in his early days — and Coben’s Windsor Horne Lockwood III…and there are plenty more to choose from if you so wish), but something about Patrick hits a little harder than your standard Disaffected P.I. Protagonist. Maybe I have the advantage this time around of broadly knowing where this series ends up — though I’ve still not read the belated sixth entry, Moonlight Mile (2010) which it’s difficult not to feel was motivated by the filming of Gone Baby Gone (2007) — and the fact that Lehane didn’t drag these characters out for another 25 books makes their arcs all the more rewarding for their closedness.
This, then, is a rare case of going home only to be amazed with myself at seeing any merit in this stuff in the first place. The subtleties of Lehane’s setting definitely flew over my head as a younger man, and the paucity of anything approaching a well-wrought plot makes this far less interesting to me now, and yet between these two readings I’ve managed to wrangle out a completely rewarding experience. Described to me using the above, I think 20 Years Ago Jim would have given this a wide berth, and the faults I see in this now — and, if I remember correctly, in first sequel Darkness, Take My Hand (1995) — make me unlikely to dive back into Lehane any time soon, but it’s been great to find something completely new amidst the tropes that this seems to be ticking off almost because they were expected at the time of writing. Fascinating stuff, I’m really pleased I picked this up a second time, even if it does show how much my interests have moved on.
Going Home on The Invisible Event:
Fade Away (1996) by Harlan Coben
Blood Work (1998) by Michael Connelly
Angels Flight (1999) by Michael Connelly
Dark Hollow (2000) by John Connolly
The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987) by Robert Crais
Airframe (1996) by Michael Crichton
Dead Meat (1993) by Philip Kerr
A Drink Before the War (1994) by Dennis Lehane
Black and Blue (1997) by Ian Rankin