Favorite authors: Dennis Lehane wages ‘War’

I’m pretty relentless in my appetite for new books. When I was a kid, I would go back and read and re-read books by my favorite authors, including Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut.

But these days I’m always trying new authors or devouring everything by a newly-discovered favorite like Craig Johnson or Ace Atkins.

But every year or so, I dip back into the work of Dennis Lehane.

Considering how damn dark much of Lehane’s work is, it’s hard to imagine how it could feel like comfort food to me, but it does. Not so much “Mystic River” or “Shutter Island,” although I liked those (the former quite a bit).

No. When I want to relive my favorite Lehane experience, I jump back into his series of novels about working-class Boston private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.

The fourth book in the Kenzie and Gennaro series, “Gone, Baby, Gone,” was made into a pretty good movie in 2007 by director Ben Affleck. Not all of the novel’s grim appeal made it onto the big screen, but quite a bit did.

So now that I’m between new books to read, I’m starting the Kenzie and Gennaro series over again with the first, 1994’s “A Drink Before the War.”

If you’ve never read Lehane’s Patrick and Angie series, I’d highly recommend it. But you really have to read them from the beginning.

Lehane takes his characters, including not only the PI partners but their friends like Bubba, the former-Marine-turned-weapons-dealer-nutcase, through some pretty big – you might say dire – changes during the course of the series.

“A Drink Before the War” opens with Patrick and Angie working out of their customary office, the empty bell tower of a Boston Catholic church. Patrick is a smartass with a gooey center. Angie is a beautiful hellraiser with an awful home life.

The two accept a case working for some legislators and their toadies trying to find a statehouse cleaning woman who’s disappeared with some supposed “documents.”

Lehane gets to the nitty gritty quickly, touching on Patrick’s hellish childhood at the hands of his father, a now-deceased firefighter regarded as a homegrown Boston hero, and Angie’s regular beatings at the hands of Phil, her husband and Patrick’s childhood friend.

Patrick, of course, is deeply in love with Angie and seethes when he sees how Phil treats her. Patrick learned the hard way, though, about trying to intercede on Angie’s behalf.

The book manages to touch on class warfare, race relations and marital discord in a plot that’s liberally sprinkled with humor.

Make no mistake, however: Lehane’s vision of his characters is dark, dark, dark. Dark, I tells ya. It’s hard not to love Patrick and Angie and hard not to ache for the troubles that befall them.

But Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro books more than make the heartache worthwhile.

I’m planning to touch on the series here over the next few weeks. Pick up the series and follow along if you will.

But remember: Read them in order: “A Drink Before the War,” “Darkness Take My Hand,” “Sacred,” “Gone, Baby, Gone” and “Prayers for Rain.”

I can’t totally endorse Lehane’s 2010 return to the characters after more than a decade’s absence, “Moonlight Mile.” But we’ll get to that later.

Have fun!


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