The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane

This book is something of a departure for Dennis Lehane: while still set, primarily, in Boston and in a police milieu, it is an historical novel rather than a crime one: Calvin Coolidge, Jack Reed, Jim Larkin and Eugene O’Neill, amongst other historical characters have walk on parts, with Babe Ruth acting as something of a comic chorus on the real events described.

The novel follows a Boston cop, Danny Coughlin, through the Spanish ‘flu pandemic and an investigation into anarchist bombers at the end of the First World War in parallel with the efforts to establish a police union and improve working conditions for the police of the city. The irony of the police role in strike breaking during this era, while themselves being dreadfully exploited and demanding improved labour rights, is explored in some detail.

After years writing African American characters on The Wire, this is the first Lehane novel, to my recollection, with a major black protagonist: Luther Laurence. His travails over the course of the year when the book is set give some insight to the nascent civil rights struggle and throw a stark light on racist violence in the US at the beginning of the Twentieth Century: some of the descriptions of anti-black pogroms during this period foreshadow later atrocities in Eastern Europe, (such as many of those described in Timothy Snyder’s magisterial “Bloodlands”).

The novel further echoes The Wire in its multi-dimensional portrayal of a city from its ordinary black citizens, to the beat cops and their commanders, to the feuding between the mayor’s office and the governor’s mansion.

Luther, Danny and Nora, the Coughlin family housekeeper, are hugely likeable characters and their personal stories help illuminate a little known part of history, with the warmth between them softening some of the bleakness of the historical events. This is a gripping novel, beautifully written, and one of Lehane’s finest.

Deliver us from evil: Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

Dave, Sean and Jimmy are childhood friends. But their friendship, and for Dave his childhood, ends when Dave is abducted from the street outside Sean’s house by two pedophiles posing as cops. 25 years later Dave and Jimmy are still living in the same neighbourhood, Dave in a dead end job, Jimmy running a local store. When Jimmy’s daughter, Katie, is murdered Sean, now a homicide cop with the state police, is assigned to the investigation.

Many of Lehane’s trademark concerns are in place in this book: violence against children and child abuse (as was the focus in Gone Baby, Gone); a strong Greene Catholic morality; life and community in working class Irish Boston; and, more lightheartedly, the vicissitudes of contemporary culture (In one passage Sean’s partner Whitey actually discusses who should play him in the movie version of the case. “Brian Dennehy” is his conclusion. He is ultimately played in Clint Eastwood’s movie by the great Laurence Fishburne, which would probably have annoyed Whitey…if he were a real person).

Like the Danish television series The Killing, which this book predates, it does the unusual thing in crime fiction of keeping a focus on the bereaved and the details of bereavement not just the investigation. It is also in many respects, another rarity, a character driven crime novel: alongside the compelling procedural account of Sean’s investigation is the story of the consequences of Katie’s killing on, in particular, Dave and Jimmy, and it is from this that much of the tension and dread in the novel derives.

Mystic River is a gripping, out of the ordinary crime novel, powerful and bleak. It is probably Dennis Lehane’s masterpiece: an exquisitely written exploration of violent crime and its consequences in a working class Massachusetts neighbourhood.

Moonlight Mile (Kenzie/Gennaro No. 6), by Dennis Lehane

Note: SPOILERS for Gone, Baby, Gone below

It’s not definitive but this novel has an air of finality about it and seems likely to be the last of the Kenzie-Gennaro series. After ten years absence its good to have them back for a final bow, bringing some measure of conclusion both to their own story and that of Amanda McCready, the girl they sought to find in the fourth novel of the series “Gone Baby Gone”.

In this novel Patrick is contacted once again by Beatrice McCready who asks him to find her niece Amanda, who has gone missing again. Feeling a large measure of responsiblity for the devastation he previously brought to both Bea and Amanda’s lives he agrees. So once more he and Angie are drawn back into contact with the violence of Boston’s underworld, including a frightening crew of Eastern European gangsters.

The Kenzie-Gennaro series has always been very dark, but generally less bleak than other parts of Lehane’s work, such as Mystic River and Shutter Island. This is not least because of the warmth of the relationships between Patrick, Angie and their best friend Bubba. “Gone Baby Gone”, perhaps the most downbeat of the Kenzie-Gennaro books, is also probably the best novel of this fine series. But this book, like the rest of the series has much to recommend it: a humorous and engaging authorial voice, a gripping plot, and a strong sense of menace. The themes of redemption, situational versus societal morality and moral compromise though present here are probably less emphasised in this book in comparison with previous in the series and this may disappoint some readers. Nevertheless if this is to be the swansong of the characters I was happy with the way they leave the stage.

Prayers for Rain (Kenzie/Gennaro No. 5), by Dennis Lehane

Some SPOILERS for “Gone Baby, Gone” below

This, the fifth of the Kenzie-Gennaro series, sees Patrick and Angie estranged, their personal relationship and professional partnership at an end following the devastating events portrayed in Gone Baby, Gone. Instead Patrick is working alone on routine missing persons cases when he finds that a former client has killed herself. Feeling guilty at having failed her Patrick decides to look into her death to find out just what happened. What transpires is a dangerous cat and mouse game with a psychopath whose particular modus operandi is the undermining of peoples’ lives and driving them to suicide.

There are strong echoes of the second Kenzie-Gennaro, Darkness Take My Hand, in the plot of this book. But the well trodden nature of the plot is probably secondary in this novel to the question of how Patrick and Angie begin to rebuild their personal and professional relationships. In addition, pleasingly, Bubba takes a more central role in this book, filling in large parts of his back story in the process.

So, not the best in the series, but still a fine outing with two of the most likeable gumshoes in literature.

Gone, Baby, Gone (Kenzie/Gennaro No.4), by Dennis Lehane

The fourth, and arguably the best, of the Kenzie-Gennaro novels. (Certainly the best known due to Ben Affleck’s very fine cinema version of the story). Patrick and Angie, much against their better judgement, are drawn into the hunt for a missing girl, Amanda McCready, by Amanda’s aunt Beatrice.

This is a book in two parts. The first two thirds of the book are a compelling procedural as Angie and Patrick are reluctantly accepted as adjuncts to the police investigation into Amanda’s disapperance. In the final third Patrick and Angie finally, and to their utter dismay, manage to unravel the layers of deceit that surround the case.

In many ways this is the most horrific of the Kenzie-Gennaro series because its subject is the shockingly commonplace matter of child abuse and violence against children. Even the warmth of the relationships between Patrick, Angie and their friend Bubba is insufficient to stave off the bleakness for either the reader or the characters themselves. It is an angry book as well as being a hugely morally complex one, peppered with some fine humour (I particularly enjoy Patrick’s occasional vitriolic asides on movies and music) and some finely drawn sequences of violence.

Sacred (Kenzie/Gennaro No.3), by Dennis Lehane

In the third of the Kenzie-Gennaro novels, Patrick and Angie are hired by a dying billionaire, Trevor Stone, to find his daughter, Desiree, who has disappeared, unable, it seems, to bear the grief of a series of tragedies that have befallen her in recent months – most recently her father’s own impending death. In pursuing the case they follow the trail of Jay Becker, a fellow private investigator and friend who had trained Patrick but who has himself gone missing while seeking the missing Desiree.

The investigation takes them to Florida where, in spite of the sunshine and pastel colours, the darkness gathers.

The Catholic themes of the earlier Kenzie-Gennaro novels are less emphasized in this book. In their place there is a fast moving and exceptionally twisty story, where little is what it initially seems, and Patrick and Angie only have each other to depend on.

Darkness, take my hand (Kenzie/Gennaro No. 2), by Dennis Lehane

In the second of the Kenzie-Gennaro series Patrick and Angie are hired by a psychiatrist to keep an eye on her son, against whom the boyfriend of a client has made some unsubtle threats. What starts as a relatively straightforward babysitting job quickly degenerates into something much more nightmarish.

Key elements of this story, not least Patrick’s prison cell confrontation with a serial killer, are reminiscent of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon – but this is Red Dragon from the perspective of the hunted with none of the risible anti-hero worship that became a central theme of the treatment of Hannibal Lecter in that series. Here the killers and their sub-Nietzchean notions are treated with the contempt they deserve.

There is a welcome reduction in wise-cracking in this novel compared to the first novel of the series, A Drink Before the War: a consequence, perhaps, of the characters aging disproportionately as a result of having survived their experiences in the earlier novel. Like its predecessor this novel is underpinned by Catholic notions of good, evil and redemption in situations where even hope is hard to see amid the violence.

A Drink before the War (Kenzie/Gennaro No. 1), by Dennis Lehane

Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are Boston private investigators operating out of an office in a church belfry in Dorchester. They get hired to undertake a seemingly easy case from three Massachusetts politicians: find a former cleaning woman who has stolen some sensitive documents from them. Of course the case turns out to be considerably less straightforward and vastly more dangerous than it initially appears.

This is the first of the celebrated Kenzie/Gennaro series and its voice, and that of Patrick, the narrator, is noticeably younger, certainly more wise-ass, than later novels of this series and later of Lehane’s other novels. In spite of this the novel offers a serious consideration of racial tensions in the Boston of the early 1990s in the guise of a very satisfying crime thriller. Typical of Lehane’s work it is run through with a strong sense of place and a Greene Catholic sensibility contemplating right, wrong and trying to discern the lesser of the evils in the midst of the routinised violence of poverty and criminal activity.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you – Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane

Two US marshals, Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, arrive at Ashcliffe hospital for the Criminally Insane on Shutter Island in Boston Harbour to search for an escaped child murderess, Rachel Solando. Teddy has a personal reason for wanting to be on the island: He knows this is where the man who killed his wife, Andrew Laedis, is imprisoned.

In Shutter Island Lehane uses a similar device to one he previously used in Gone Baby, Gone: the first three quarters of the book are a procedural as Chuck and Teddy conduct their hunt for the missing Rachel. In the final quarter the true nature of what has been going on is revealed.

There is some debt to Sophicles’ Oedipus Rex in this novel as Teddy finds his investigation coming closer to home than he could possibly have imagined. The result is a compelling novel with the final twists elegantly delivered.

A story from behind the statistics – Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French

In 1937 the body of a young western woman, Pamela Werner, was found brutally murdered in Peking. An investigation was launched by Chinese police with British support but the murderer was never arrested and the crime was soon forgotten in the midst of the cataclysm of the second world war that engulfed China and the world thereafter.

Paul French, the author of this book, in the course of researching the case found that after the police investigation wound up, having been obstructed throughout by a combination of bureaucratic corruption, racism, sexual hypocrisy and imperial pretensions, Pamela’s father conducted his own enquiries. These uncovered significant new evidence including, almost certainly, the identity of the murderer and the circumstances of Pamela’s death. The resulting book is a gripping non-fiction procedural which gives fascinating insight into Peking, and particularly its foreign community and foreign underclass of white Russian emigres and multinational adventurers and criminals, in the last days before the Japanese take-over.

Pamela’s death was, of course, just one of millions that would occur between the invasion of Manchuria and the bombing of Nagasaki. But the author is right to single it out: in focusing on the life and horrific death of one fiesty young woman we are reminded that her story is a dreadfully ordinary one and representative of tens of thousands of others who in peacetime fall victim the way Pamela did.

To say more would be to give too much away. Suffice to say that Paul French has produced a fine narrative of a single criminal case of the sort that remains horrifically commonplace over 70 years since Pamela’s awful death on a cold Peking night.