Wednesday, July 06, 2011

36. A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

[Wow, is June ever going to look bad on my year-end graph! I was really on a tear there and then I slammed right into a brick wall known as the Grand Roludothon, a local tabletop gaming convention that was quite fun and got me all fired up for RPGs again. All the time I should have been working on my record-breaking 50 books year these last three weeks, I've been reading rich and interesting roleplaying game texts (especially in the sci-fi realm) and talking about them on the internet. It's good stuff, but I never read them from cover to cover so I can't really justify counting them in my 50 books challenge. I also was stuck on a C.S. Forester book of short stories that I thought was a novel at first. Plus, summer has come and one spends a lot more time outside, socializing and walking the neighbour's dog. So those are my excuses. Now back to your regular scheduled programming.]

I really enjoyed Shutter Island and since then have spent a lot of time keeping an eye open for Dennis Lehane's other books. I was wary, however, of his Kenzie-Genarro series. When I flipped through them, they seemed less focused somehow and more generic. I finally broke down when I found this one for a buck at the always fruitful Chainon thrift shop. Somehow in this current reading drought, its paperback best-seller design suggested to me that I wouldn't be struggling to read it and so I chose it from my now nearly full on-deck shelf to get me back on the virtuous path.

My instincts were correct in both sense. This was an enjoyable book, but not anywhere as special as Shutter Island. It reminded me very much of a lot of detective fiction that I read in the late 80s and early 90s (the Spenser books being probably the best example of that period). It was also very easy to digest and a page-turner.

The main detective is Patrick Kenzie. His partner, Angie Genarro, is hot and tough, but improbably married to an abusive husband. They both come from rough backgrounds and work in Boston. They are hired by a powerful state senator to track down an employee in another senator's office who left with some damaging material. Their investigation leads them quite quickly into the poor, black neighbourhoods of Boston and the criminal element thereof. There is a lot of pretty hardcore violence in this book, several shootouts with automatic weaponry, car chases, beatings. The story is good, with a nice range of places and characters. It lays the social issues on pretty thick. Most of the time, these critiques are woven into the narrative and descriptions, but in a few instances they become blatant and really take the story off its rails (such as when the white Kenzie and his black newspaper editor friend have a racially-charged argument; zzzzz). It was Lehane's first book, so I will forgive him. I assume things get subtler in future books.

The other slight flaw was the character of Bubba, who is sort of like the Hawk character from Spenser, except not intelligent and less central. What he is is a total simpleton badass who hates everybody except the two detectives and thus is able to protect them from any real threat for most of the book. It's a nice fantasy, but a bit too overblown in what is supposed to be a fairly realistic milieu.

But I'm nitpicking. It's an enjoyable read, fast-paced with enough intrigue and character that you definitely want to find out what happens. I'm not rushing to read the next in the series, but if they fall in my lap, I will not say no.


Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

The next one, Darkness Take My Hand, is probably better. It's certainly more grisly. By the way, I wondered in my review of A Drink Before the War if Lehane's hellish portrait of mid-90s Chicago was accurate. Was it really as bleak as he made out?

OlmanFeelyus said...

Cool. I'll keep an eye out for it. It's easy to be nitpicky, but really it is awesome that authors like Lehane have done so well that their books are easy to find for a couple of bucks (and they aren't beautifully published, so you don't have to worry about taking care of the paperback).

I do think there is some exaggeration (for instance, I don't think that dudes were spraying uzis in to crowds of people at the courhouse), but I think he does it for theme rather than just to make it super dark and crazy. The base reality, that existing racial and class discrepancies were reaching a tipping point, and that the black community was being devastated by crack was (and is) very true. I assume you have seen The Wire, but if not, that show captures it perfectly and the author went looking for genre authors like Lehane and Pellicanos to write for it, because he knew they had been telling it like it is in their respective cities.

I went to a blues club in South Side Chicago in that period with a guy who knew his way around the scene and it was definitely take a cab there and take a cab back if you were white. The places in between were a no-go zone.