This was the first in a succession of powerful thrillers to come from the pen of Dennis Lehane, and I can honestly say it holds its own with his most polished later works like Gone Baby Gone and Moonlight Mile. Published in 1994, this novel launched the careers of Lehane’s streetwise pair of private eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, and delves into the world of dirty politics, child abuse, drug and weapons running, murder, racial tension, and gang warfare, themes that are recurrent in the only slightly fictionalized dark side of Boston where most of Lehane’s stories take place.
Patrick and Angie are contracted by Senators Sterling Mulkern and Brian Paulson, two of Boston’s top politicians, to recover some ‘documents’ allegedly stolen by a cleaning maid from Paulson’s office at the State Senate building. Simple, right? Except the documents turn out to be incriminating 6-year-old photographs showing Paulson raping a little boy in an act brokered by Marion Socia, a top drug dealer, gang leader, stone-cold killer, pimp … and would-be blackmailer. The cleaning maid, we soon learn, is Socia’s estranged wife and the boy is their son Raymond, now grown and the dead-eyed leader of a rival gang dedicated to the extermination of Socia and the takeover of his criminal kingdom.
Kenzie and Gennaro, hard-boiled themselves in the white working-class tenements of Dorchester, bring to Lehane’s story a compelling mixture of tough and tender, as she struggles with an abusive husband and he carries around the perpetual nightmare of his own childhood abuse by his father “The Hero.” Partly as a result of the personal crosses they bear and partly because of their own moral compass, our heroes commit to exposing the bad guys on both sides of their contract . This puts Kenzie and Gennaro in the crosshairs of a seemingly unending army of killers, but they survive to make a comeback in my next review, Darkness Take My Hand.
What makes A Drink Before the War more than just a crackling good (if sometimes a bit melodramatic) story is that most of his protagonists are real flesh-and-blood characters, human beings each and every one of whom has been warped—a little or a lot—by the circumstances of their upbringing, their jobs, and the world around them. So there’s the decent cop who drinks to drown out the hopelessness of his job, the bad gangster whose soul was ripped out of him as a child, the black journalist guilt-ridden over his own success, and Kenzie, who shocks himself with the racism that bubbles deep down inside. In fact, throughout this novel, Lehane tackles some very prickly questions about racial identity in America, forcing his readers to do some soul-searching along with his characters.