Small Mercies

Written by Dennis Lehane

Review written by Ali Karim

Ali Karim was a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.

Small Mercies
Abacus Books an Imprint of Little, Brown
RRP: £20
Released: April 25 2023

The latest novel from Dennis Lehane arrives unexpectedly.

It’s been over five years since he published Since We Fell. Lehane has been busy writing for TV during this gap.  He stated in interviews that the process in producing novels has never gotten easier - “When I write a novel, I have to go into a tunnel. And it doesn't make me the greatest person to be around. With television, I can do it anywhere. I can spend the morning with my kids. I can drive them to school, and then I can go, and I can work.”

Therefore, receiving Small Mercies comes as a shock, but what a shock. I postulate that this is his most vibrant work, a truly exciting, engaging and enraging narrative. There is an echo of Mystic River, the beautiful [though dark] novel that was shortlisted in 2010, as the greatest crime-novel of the decade via Deadly Pleasures Magazine’s Barry Award [narrowly missing out to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at Bouchercon San Francisco].

Small Mercies [like Mystic River] is a historical crime thriller set in the Irish working-class neighbourhood of South Boston. The backdrop is the desegregation of the public school system by busing high school students from poor Black Neighbourhoods, into poor White Neighbourhoods, and vice versa. It should be noted that this desegregation initiative was restricted to the public school system, not the affluent neighbourhoods where privately funded education was the norm.

The story is propelled by the vividly realised character of Mary Pat, a tough middle-aged single working-class Irish Woman.

Widowed: her former husband ‘Dukie’ was a small-time burglar connected to the local Mob Boss, Marty Butler.

Separated: her second husband Kenny Fey left her because he could no longer tolerate ‘the hate’.

Devasted: she lost her son Noel, an ex-Vietnam GI who died tragically from a Drug Overdose.

And finally, there’s Jules: Her teenage daughter about to find herself in a [former] all-White High School, where half the student body will be bused out to a Black High School – and taking their place will come Black Pupils.

When Mary Pat finds herself involved in the protest movement against the desegregation / busing initiative, her beloved daughter Jules vanishes. The disappearance coincides with the death of Auggie [Augustus] Williamson - a black youth, at a train station on the white-side of town.

As Mary Pat grows more anxious about her missing daughter, the local mobster Marty Butler and his henchmen at the pub The Fields of Athenry agree to help her. But before you can mutter ‘Gone, Baby, Gone’, their assistance takes on another meaning, perhaps a differing significance.

A tangled web of tribalism, ignorance and a sense of belonging and community take on a darker edge – one of fear that transforms into unbridled hate. An underground ‘Black Power’ liberation group is acquiring weapons, as dividing lines separate communities by skin colour. Each of these communities are equally poor, and controlled equally by the wealthy and the criminal – where money and power overlook skin colour.

Lehane’s ear for dialogue and emotion is incisive so all the characters come alive by deft turns of phrase and mannerism. There is wit that keeps the novel’s dark tragedy and violence from overpowering the reader.

Historical detail is realised with an uncommon vibrancy. Clipped short chapters are not written but carved, so there is not one superfluous word. Lehane has considered every sentence, so apart from the thrilling [and urgency] of the propulsive narrative – the reader is prompted unconsciously into deep thought. The reader’s own moral compass is tested, almost as if the ink that stains the words has been magnetised.  Despite the dilemmas facing the characters and readers, this highly literate novel is as fast paced as ricocheting bullets off concrete.

The dénouement is staggering, for the reader is bereft when the pages run out, for the story continues in the mind – remaining like an echo, the ranting of an inmate from sHuTteR iSlaNd.

This is Dennis Lehane at the height of his writing powers; for to miss this novel would be unforgivable.

So, how did Small Mercies come about, considering Lehane indicated that TV scripting now dominated his writing focus, as opposed to penning novels? In the acknowledgments, he states -

I wrote most of this novel in New Orleans while running a TV show during frequent COVID outbreaks and lightning strikes in the furnace of a Louisiana summer. Oh, and then a hurricane hit.

But what was the compulsion that drove Lehane to write this novel while adapting James Keene’s In With The Devil into Black Bird for AppleTV+?

Like the emotion that drove the white working-class Irish community toward violent protest [in Small Mercies] at racial desegregation, by the busing of public-school students in 1974 – it was fear.

Dennis Lehane issued an author’s note clipped to the US review copies of Small Mercies; it captures the authors imperative to produce such an electrifying thriller, one that focuses on youth and the tangibility of fear -

Dear Reader,

At the end of summer 1974, when I was nine years old, we were heading home through South Boston to Dorchester when my father took an errant turn and we found ourselves on Broadway, Southie’s main drag, as an anti-busing protest consumed the neighbourhood. It was night, and flaming effigies of the most well-known supporters of school desegregation— Garrity, Kennedy, Taylor—hung from street poles, the yellow, blue, and red reflections of the flames sluicing up the windshield and along the windows of my father’s Chevy. The mob chanted slogans—some violent and racist, some not—and my father’s car was rocked and buffeted as it crept through the ocean of furious bodies. No one seemed to notice us, and yet I’d never been so terrified in my life.

This is a novel about those times. And maybe about the times we live in now. It’s about a mother’s search for her daughter in those crazed last days of summer in South Boston in 1974, when a first day of school unlike any first day of school in the city’s history loomed ahead and felt—depending on which side of the issue one stood—like either the culmination of a long-delayed promise or the punch line to joke no one found funny. It’s a story that finally puts into words, I hope, what a terrified nine-year-old tried to make sense of when his father took a wrong turn straight into the heart of a community’s rage.

Sounds strange to say, but I hope you enjoy it.

Dennis Lehane, Los Angeles, CA, July 27, 2022

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