Grimm P.I. Tales: The early work of Dennis Lehane

A decade ago, “Mystic River” became a best-selling, highly praised novel for its author, Dennis Lehane, and changed the way the public perceived him – and maybe the way he perceived himself.

His previous books, revolving around the Boston private investigator duo of Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, were met with awards and acclaim. The first, “A Drink Before the War,” won the Shamus Award, one of the highest accolades for published mysteries. But the acclaim that greeted “Mystic River” elevated Lehane out of the ranks of typical crime novel writers.

Too bad.

While I liked “Mystic River” and, to some extent, “Shutter Island,” which came out two years later, in 2003, it is Lehane’s early work, the gritty and often downbeat series of novels about Kenzie and Gennaro, that remain my favorites.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was indulging in my irregular habit of re-reading the Patrick and Angie books. Along with other summertime reading, I’ve re-read the first three books in the series and thought I’d give you a quick rundown.

By all means, if you read the books – and they’re very rewarding, if very dark – read them in order.

“A Drink Before the War,” published in 1994, opened the series in fine form with Kenzie and Gennaro running their PI office out of a borrowed bell tower in a Catholic church in the blue-collar Dorchester neighborhood. Yes, I know, it sounds gimmicky, like something out of a TV show, and there’s a bit of a formula feel to the setup.

But “A Drink Before the War” is anything but a predictable, feel-good story, as Kenzie and Gennaro are hired by a group of politicians to find a statehouse cleaning lady who’s disappeared with some important documents.

Before long, the two find that everything isn’t what it seems, of course. Class and race tensions thoroughly permeate the action.

The book introduces not only the PIs but the cops in their neighborhood, the criminals – including Bubba, lifelong friend of Patrick and Angie and one of the most dangerous men to walk the streets of Boston – and Phil, Angie’s husband.

While Patrick is a smart ass not unlike Robert Parker’s Spenser – albeit with a dark, dark background – Angie is a complicated character. Phil is a wife-beater. He was once one of Patrick’s closest friends. Now Patrick has to tread lightly around Angie’s awful marriage out of fear of what might happen. Angie, like many victims, doesn’t know how or even seem to want to break free from her hellish life. Patrick has learned the hard way that he can’t interfere.

Before the book ends, Patrick and Angie will jump into harm’s way to right wrongs and expose the truth.

If “A Drink Before the War” seemed dark, the second Lehane book, 1996’s “Darkness, Take My Hand,” proved to be even more so.

When a sadistic killer begins plying his trade around their neighborhood, Patrick and Angie find themselves drawn into a mystery that dates back decades, to separate but equally unholy alliances among killers and among neighborhood vigilantes.

Unlike many crime thrillers, “Darkness, Take My Hand” emphasizes the toll that fear and violence takes on the lives of people who live with it every day.

The story climaxes in one of the most harrowing showdowns I’ve ever read.

Lehane’s third Kenzie and Gennaro story, “Sacred,” is probably the weakest of the original series of books but still a good read. Published in 1997, “Sacred” finds Patrick and Angie hired to find the missing daughter of one of New England’s richest men. It’s a departure from their typical story of Boston’s meanest streets and, to its debit, really could be about any male-female private eye partnership.

I haven’t yet dipped back into Lehane’s fourth book and the best-known of his non-“Mystic River” books, “Gone, Baby, Gone.” The 1998 book – made into a pretty good movie in 2007 by director Ben Affleck – might be Lehane’s best. I’ve read it several times and I’m looking forward to reading it and its 1999 follow-up, “Prayers for Rain,” in the coming weeks. When I do, I’ll note it here.

I’ll also talk about how Lehane’s writing goals seemed to change after “Mystic River” was a hit in 2001 and why his work has been very different since.





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