Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War

A Drink Before the War, my second Lehane read and his first novel, has me convinced that the hype surrounding him is true: along with George Pelecanos and Richard Price, Dennis Lehane is not just one of the best American writers of crime fiction but one of the best American writers we have today, period.

A Drink Before the War is the first novel featuring the private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, best known for their roles in Gone, Baby, Gone. Kenzie and Gennaro are hired by a group of Boston politicians for a seemingly simple “find-and-a-phone-call” case. A cleaning woman, Jenna Angeline, has vanished along with some documents, and Kenzie is to find her so the politicians can recover the documents. He does this easily enough, but is swayed by Angeline to hold off on the phone call until she’s shown him one of the “documents” she stole: a photograph of one of the politicians in a hotel room with a pimp.

Angeline turns out to be not as much of an outsider as Kenzie was led to believe by the politicians. This is not a cleaning woman who made off with some documents by sheer chance; she knows the men in the photograph, and can guess what they might do to get these photographs back. The simple case that Kenzie signed up for becomes part of something larger – a full-scale gang war – and Lehane draws his narrative so carefully that not a line reads false.

The reason I’m so into Lehane is that it’s not just the plotting he’s good at; it’s his style, his characterizations, the voice he creates for Kenzie, everything. Kenzie describes one of the politicians, Brian Paulson, by his handshake: “He waited until Mulkern sat back down before he did, and I wondered if he’d asked permission before he sweated all over my palm too” (5). One of the men, a former client, who helps them track down Jenna Angeline: “Billy, like a lot of people who work in Western Union offices, looks like he just got out of detox” (47).

And Boston is as much a character, with Kenzie’s Dorchester background informing his view of the city. Of Wickham, Kenzie notes: “The streets are the color of a shoe bottom, and the only way to tell the difference between the bars and the homes is to look for the neon signs in the windows” (55). When he’s trying to get rid of a tail: “By the boathouse, I saw a group of BU or Emerson students, stuck in the city for the summer, passing around a bottle of wine. Wild kids. Probably had some brie and crackers in their backpacks, too” (51).

I don’t want to say that Lehane surpasses genre conventions, because just to say that is to suggest that genre writing is inherently “worse” than literary fiction (whatever I mean by that term). What he does do is bring together what I like most about crime fiction and literary writing: tight plotting, a unique voice, a current of humor running beneath the novel as a whole, a character who views the world as his world, who never seems an outsider to the action around him. If you haven’t read Lehane, read him. If you’ve read some Lehane, read everything you haven’t read. If you’ve read everything by Lehane, I don’t know, reread it all while I play catch-up. This guy is good.

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Great review! I read my first Lehane in the fall (Gone, Baby, Gone), and immediately picked up the sequel, Moonlight Mile. I’m more than impressed with his writing and the stories. I know what you mean about not wanting to talk about it “surpassing a genre,” because of the implications, but Lehane really does take his writing further than the standard mystery novel.

Comment by Kerry

This is a great review. Was wondering what your first was – Gone Baby Gone? I read that too, Kerry, and I loved it. Hated Moonlight Mile, but I want to read more earlier stuff. I own copies of Shutter Island & Drink Before the War that I want to read soon!

Comment by Lulu

my first was “shutter island”. i’m probably going to go for “mystic river” next because it and “gone baby gone” are the only other two i have on my kindle and i am struggling right now over whether to buy the other kenzie/gennaro e-books so i can read them in order, or just forget about order and read “gbg” now and the others later (in the states), or hold off until i’m in the states near a library and can read them all in order for free. i think i’m putting too much thought into this? i’ve read mixed reviews of “moonlight mile” so i’m glad i started reading his older works first.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Lehane is one of my favorite authors. You’ll enjoy the others in the Patrick and Angie series.

Comment by Erin

[…] been going through a big Dennis Lehane thing lately. I read A Drink Before the War in late February, then took a respectable break – but I’ve been sick, with lots of time to […]

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