Book Review

Review: A Drink Before The War by Dennis Lehane

A Drink Before The War - Dennis Lehane
A Drink Before The War – Dennis Lehane

The mesmerizing, darkly original novel that heralded the arrival of now New York Times bestselling author Dennis Lehane, the master of the new noir—and introduced Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, his smart and tough private investigators weaned on the blue-collar streets of Dorchester.

A cabal of powerful Boston politicians is willing to pay Kenzie and Gennaro big money for a seemingly small job: to find a missing cleaning woman who stole some secret documents. As Kenzie and Gennaro learn, however, this crime is no ordinary theft. It’s about justice, about right and wrong. But in Boston, finding the truth isn’t just a dirty business . . . it’s deadly.

Today I’m stepping away from romance to dish on a series very close to my heart. Dennis Lehane is mostly known for his later works, like Mystic River and Shutter Island. Both are fantastic reads but Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennero series is so underrated that it’s criminal, so readers need to know what they’re missing here. These books are not for the faint of heart. This is gritty, dark, crime noire at it’s finest and some of the subject matter will shock.

This series one of my all-time favorite things. Not all-time favorite books but literally something I genuinely love. Patrick and Angie are fantastic characters: smart, tough, funny and real. And while their adventures are perfect reads, equal parts intriguing, suspenseful and at times devastating, the characters themselves are the kind I adore: they could be real people.

I’ve mentioned it before but have to repeat: I love nothing more than a character who comes to life so completely that I’d love to have a drink with them. Many writers are gifted at crafting settings, world-building, telling a story, creating suspense and so much more, yet even some of the very best don’t give us characters who come alive off of the page. It’s not easy to do because we want to tell a story and readers want to escape so nobody wants to read a novel length telling of some boring person’s boring daily life.

Crafting true-to-life people and then maintaining them through extraordinary situations is an incredible talent. For me as a writer, that would be the ultimate compliment to receive and as a reader, it’s my highest praise to bestow unto authors. Lehane gives us just that with Kenzie and Gennaro.

They’re a pair of private investigators born and bred in working-class Boston. Dorchester born and raised, the lifelong friends started their own agency and work out of the belfry of the neighborhood church. This case seems innocuous at first: a low-level employee vanishes the same day sensitive documents disappear. A critical vote looms and this looks like an amateur extortion attempt but things quickly take an unexpected turn. From the state capitol building to some of the most dangerous streets in the nation, the action never stops.

Patrick Kenzie is witty and sarcastic and still struggling to overcome his violently abusive childhood. He’s attempting to fight the ghost of his father while embracing a violent, thankless profession. Angela Gennaro is sassy, brave and strong in every aspect of her life but her Achilles heel is Phil, her abusive drunk of a husband who routinely beats her to a pulp. There’s an undercurrent of sexual tension between the two and an element of will they/won’t they throughout: Patrick pines for the girl he’s always wanted, who grew up to marry his former best friend while Angie seems stuck in the past by some sense of loyalty that betrays herself.

Lehane does a great job showing us the complexities of their psyches and how Angie can be so tough yet have this utter weakness for a man she once loved or how Patrick can be so commanding in just about any situation except in the face of the childhood demons that haunt him.

Critics call Patrick whiny and lawless or label Angie’s personal life as an element that doesn’t fit but I strongly disagree on all counts. To the contrary, many people wrestle with past trauma and Patrick isn’t screaming his from the rooftops, he’s hashing it out in his own mind. That’s not at all unreasonable or unrealistic. The Angie and Phil angle is so commonplace as to be almost mundane. Good characters are flawed and real people live like Angie. They succeed in every aspect of their lives like a boss but are ultimately governed by some weakness, be it addiction or codependency. I can understand not liking the characters but dismissing these attributes as pointless or distracting baffles me, especially since these traits lay a foundation Lehane continues to build on in the successive books.

Lehane expertly paints a picture of moral relativity in a corrupt world through this tale of political corruption and organized crime, touching on the state of race relations in 1990’s America and the powerlessness of the average citizen. Those who dismiss the book as racist or glamorizing the criminal element are those for whom every point this book makes go right over their heads. At the heart of it, the characters are recognizing their own flaws and desperately seeking a way to change for the better. They’re in no way celebrating those shortcomings or suggesting that it’s anything to aspire to; On the contrary, they’re ashamed and self-loathing.

Some characters will bring tears to your eyes while you wish others were flesh and blood so they could suffer for their crimes, because while this is fiction, everything about it rings true. Crimes like these happen every day in America, sacrificing innocents at the whims of those in power so that unfortunate truth is what makes this book so powerful. 

This is a book you can’t put down and it will leave you wanting more.

Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro series

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