Dennis Lehane


A Drink Before the War

(Kenzie and Gennaro 1)


Thoroughly enjoyable.


I was glad I had the opportunity to knock this book over in a couple of days. He’s nicely captured the hardboiled thing, more Hammett than Chandler in the over the top level of constant danger and violence. Also no coincidence that there’s a deliberate Western influence (Hammett wasn’t shy of knocking out a Western alongside his crime stories, such as the excellent ‘The Man Who Killed Dan Odoms’), Lehane foregrounding this as his heroes head out into their high noon shootout with a couple of wisecracking cops saying,

‘They think they’re cowboys.’

‘Then we’ll bury them with their boots on.’

Just about everyone is that much larger than life, tough hombres with gallows wit. ‘Bubba’ is that much larger again, the sort of cartoon character that would be at home in a Terry Pratchett novel, but mostly Lehane keeps the comic thing secondary to the dark mood. The cast and plot are genre fiction staples down to their DNA, but that’s just fine – Lehane successfully celebrates lots of the things I love about how you can play with this tradition. A total deal-breaker with this is you’ve got to be able to deliver one-liners, and Lehane gets this essential nicely.


Very interesting, too, how he deals with the race thing. This has become a convention lately, probably because of the interplay of TV with books. Cop shows have had mandatory ‘people of colour’ working (surprisingly happily) alongside white folks since the 70s. While tokenism is still rampant, some textures have been allowed to emerge over time (and this novel has far more in common with, say, ‘The Shield’, than Starsky and Hutch’s ‘Huggy Bear’ – or the casual perfection of a ‘Bones’ universe). The race issue is given more time, as an issue that isn’t necessarily driving the crime story, than anything, with a few barely veiled editorials contained in some of the dialogue. Yet while he does give some strong lines challenging race as an excuse, he also has great relish in giving some rednecks a right kicking. I like that there’s lots unresolved here, even within the hero. This is a messy area, and while Lehane condemns some extremes on both sides, he leaves it messy. And he does nothing like the appallingly twee condescension of Mark Giminez’ awful ‘The Color of Law’.


This book has so many merits I’ll forgive him the almost satirical level of sexual tension: at times I felt like I was watching a ‘Flying High’ type rip-off as yet another perfectly timed phone call, rap on the door or gunshot diverts the girl and boy millimetres away from falling into each other’s arms. Is he going to maintain this for the whole series? Absurdly he might – just because sexual tension is more fun than stable relationships. Gennaro is clearly fictional but successful in her combination of vulnerability, impossible desirability, and raw courage. Her abusive marriage (spoiler) sub-plot does deliver the pleasure of a cracker come-uppance scene, but how Phil has survived until then while causing the ire of, what, half a dozen of the most dangerous badasses in the city, is a total mystery.


Whatever, sign me up, I’ll be back for more of this.


December 2010