Pros: The way the city and characters come to life
Cons: The way the characters are cliched
The Bottom Line:
Tom Brady is out for the season!
As I read through Dennis Lehane's novel A Drink Before the War, a thought occurred to me: The result-getting, rule-breaking private eye has become a cliche. I've seen so many stories about detectives who go under the rules in the name of getting results that I'm getting sick of these guys. I think it would be nice, just once, to see a cheerful detective who sings when he gets up with the sun, can't wait to see what kind of exciting case he lands today, and is a socialite and near-saint. It would be great to read a story where the detective follows the rules and gets his man. But that's probably an idea ahead of the times. I imagine detective work is pretty bleak, and that's why so many detectives in stories are anti-heroes.
It's hard for me to say why I liked A Drink Before the War so much. It's loaded with a lot of typical detective stereotypes: The main character, Patrick Kenzie, is somewhat anti-social. He can't keep a steady relationship with a woman - his marriage lasted, in his own method of timekeeping, about a minute and a half. He has a detective partner, Angela Gennaro, was is an ex-lover. Patrick and Angela repeatedly one-up each other with clever one-liners and comebacks. Angela is married to an abusive, angry punk by the name of Phil. There's one character, Bubba, who lives in a factory and stocked with an arsenal which would win decisively win the war in Afghanistan if he were to deploy it there. There's a slimy senator. The detectives keep a small office in a bad neighborhood in Boston. There are a lot of street thugs and a there's a token black guy who offers some information.
Actually, there are a lot of token black guys in A Drink Before the War. One of the major events of the book is a very bloody gang war between two rivals, Roland and Socia, who respectively command the Angel Avengers and the Raven Saints, which are dominant street gangs in the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston. There's something of a racist undertone to the book, and one of the things I liked about A Drink Before the War is how frank the characters often are when they discuss the racial tension in Boston. A Drink Before the War is wriiten in the first-person view of Patrick Kenzie, who admits to having a bit of a racist streak. However, Patrick's racism is a more subtle type, not a direct type displayed by the KKK, and Patrick is written as if he knows it's wrong to be a racist but he just can't help but to slip out an occasional slur. When an important character bites the dust and the idea of a racist motive is mentioned, Angela unleashes a rant which Patrick refers to as reactionary white rage.
A Drink Before the War is about a pair of senators who hire the private eye duo to find a missing person who up and quit her job, went hiding, and took some very important documents with her. While the plot does become a lot more than that and it includes a few twists and surprises, it's hardly what I would call labyrinthine. Lehane doesn't gives us layer upon layer of material, but he presents his story in a very straightforward fashion and makes it very easy to follow. Mainly the book follows Kenzie as he moves from lead to lead. Lehane gets a lot of credit for not trying to trick us with fake endings. Although one could make a case for the finding of the missing person being a fake ending, it obviously isn't because of the way the missing person plays her cards. As the plot builds, Kenzie gets deeper into the case because he appears to have a need to see justice done and not just to collect his paycheck at the end of the day.
I could have lived without the subplot of Angela's relationship with her husband. Maybe it was included to give her another dimension, but ultimately the tough girl in Angela asserts herself as the boss, and the ending of that subplot is extremely predictable. There's also a lot of filler in the book about Kenzie's relationship with his father, a firefighter who has clearly been dead for a long time and who Kenzie seriously hated. If the guy was a firefighter, what was the connection between him and Kenzie? There really isn't one. Maybe it's in the book to explain why Kenzie is so world-weary, but we get that in a lot of other detective stories too. What was the point.
I envy the writing style of Dennis Lehane. His style is crisp and crackling, filled with smart tongue-in-cheek references. His dialogue is gritty and realistic, and there is not one moment throughout A Drink Before the War in which you won't think a particular character would never say one of the lines he's given. My favorite aspect of his style was how he captured the city of Boston and turned it into a character in itself. Lehane is from Boston's Dorchester neighborhood so he knows the area well, but it's more than that. Turning a geographical area into a character requires knowing the area, what the people there are like, what social class they're a part of, and things of that nature. I've never been to Boston, so I have to take Lehane's words for it, but it feels real enough. His descriptions even inspired me to start trying to turn my own hometown into a character in a piece of fiction.
A Drink Before the War is a great introduction to the work of Dennis Lehane. I should know. It WAS my introduction to the work of Dennis Lehane, and I'm tracking down and reading the rest of it now. I'm already blazing through his second Kenzie/Gennaro book, which is called Darkness, Take My Hand. Few authors have left me wanting more to that extent. Even fewer authors have left me wanting more to that extent after such freewheeling use of reliable cliches.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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Private detective partners Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are hired to find Jenna Angeline, a missing black cleaning woman who allegedly stole confidential state documents, but as their investigation becomes complicated by rival gang leaders, extortion, child prostitution, and assassination reaching to the highest levels of government, they discover that their target has been framed.