Therefore, receiving Small Mercies comes as a shock, but what a shock. I postulate that this is his most vibrant work, a truly exciting, engaging and enraging narrative. There is an echo of Mystic River, the beautiful though dark novel that was shortlisted in 2010, as the greatest crime-novel of the decade via Deadly Pleasures Magazine’s Barry Award narrowly missing out to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at Bouchercon San Francisco.
Small Mercies like Mystic River is a historical crime thriller set in the Irish working-class neighborhood of South Boston. The backdrop is the desegregation of the public school system by busing high school students from poor Black Neighborhoods, into poor White Neighborhoods, and vice versa. It should be noted that this desegregation initiative was restricted to the public school system, not the affluent neighborhoods where privately funded education was the norm.
The story is propelled by the vividly realized character of Mary Pat, a tough middle-aged single working-class Irish Woman.
Widowed: her former husband ‘Dukie’ was a small-time burglar connected to the local Mob Boss, Marty Butler.
Separated: her second husband Kenny Fey left her because he could no longer tolerate ‘the hate’.
Devastated: she lost her son Noel, an ex-Vietnam GI who died tragically from a Drug Overdose.
And finally, there’s Jules: Her teenage daughter about to find herself in a former all-White High School, where half the student body will be bused out to a Black High School – and taking their place will come Black Pupils.
When Mary Pat finds herself involved in the protest movement against the desegregation / busing initiative, her beloved daughter Jules vanishes. The disappearance coincides with the death of Auggie Augustus Williamson – a black youth, at a train station on the white-side of town.
As Mary Pat grows more anxious about her missing daughter, the local mobster Marty Butler and his henchmen at the pub The Fields of Athenry agree to help her. But before you can mutter ‘Gone, Baby, Gone’, their assistance takes on another meaning, perhaps a differing significance.
A tangled web of tribalism, ignorance and a sense of belonging and community take on a darker edge – one of fear that transforms into unbridled hate. An underground ‘Black Power’ liberation group is acquiring weapons, as dividing lines separate communities by skin colour. Each of these communities are equally poor, and controlled equally by the wealthy and the criminal – where money and power overlook skin colour.
Lehane’s ear for dialogue and emotion is incisive so all the characters come alive by deft turns of phrase and mannerism. There is wit that keeps the novel’s dark tragedy and violence from overpowering the reader.
Historical detail is realised with an uncommon vibrancy. Clipped short chapters are not written but carved, so there is not one superfluous word. Lehane has considered every sentence, so apart from the thrilling and urgency of the propulsive narrative – the reader is prompted unconsciously into deep thought. The reader’s own moral compass is tested, almost as if the ink that stains the words has been magnetised. Despite the dilemmas facing the characters and readers, this highly literate novel is as fast paced as ricocheting bullets off concrete.
The dénouement is staggering, for the reader is bereft when the pages run out, for the story continues in the mind – remaining like an echo, the ranting of an inmate from sHuTteR iSlaNd.
This is Dennis Lehane at the height of his writing powers; for to miss this novel would be unforgivable.