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.