Fat Books & Thin Women


#fridayreads: Dennis Lehane


One of my favorite new (to me) book blogs, Picky Girl, is doing a new meme, #Fridayreads take me away. I’m pretty much reading solely for escapism right now so can’t claim that the books I read on the weekends are any different from my Monday – Thursday books, but still….

I’ve 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 lay around reading, and in the past week or so have put away Darkness, Take My Hand, Sacred, and Gone, Baby, Gone. The last was my “fridayread” for this week, only it’s halfway through the day and I just finished it, so I guess I’ll be moving on to the fifth book in his Kenzie/Gennaro series, Prayers for Rain.

At some point I’ll probably do a real post on Lehane, an improvement over the review I did of A Drink Before the War. For now, I can’t say a whole lot except that it feels good to remember the way it feels to discover an author with a healthy backlist, to fall into the lives of characters who I know I’ll be able to read about for two more books. Lulu over at What Book Today? is pretty crushing in her appraisal of the focus on the personal lives of Kenzie and Gennaro in the latest installment in this series, Moonlight Mile, but for now it’s something I’m enjoying. Lehane is great at character development, and the occasional glimpses into their private lives adds something to the books – it makes it easier to understand why Kenzie and Gennaro treat their work or certain classes of criminals the way they do.

Besides the character development, my god, Lehane pulls off the gore well. Darkness, Take My Hand has a serial killer torturing and butchering his victims, then leaving little bits of them scattered around, like when Kenzie finds a pair of eyeballs in his kitchen cupboard. I didn’t like Sacred as much as that second book (it would be hard to match it) but again, Lehane has this skill for characters who are almost out of this world in terms of their moral views, but who I believe in absolutely. He casts his net wide, too, and it’s alternately fun and disturbing to see the way those in power (politicians, the rich, the police) influence or mastermind the crimes Kenzie and Gennaro investigate.

I’m telling myself now that I’m going to read the Orange Prize nominee White Woman on the Green Bicycle next, but let’s face it – it’s going to be Lehane’s Prayers for Rain. I want to delay reading any more of these novels to make them last longer, but now that I’ve fallen prey to Lehane it is really, really hard to find my way out.

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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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