“A Drink Before the War” by Dennis Lehane

Lehane, Dennis. A Drink Before the War (1994)  
HarperCollins, 277 pages, $6.99 mass market paperback  
ISBN 0 380 72623 8     

Sometimes it pays to start reading a series at the beginning. And sometimes it doesn’t. After discovering Dennis Lehane in Gone, Baby, Gone, I decided to get to know Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro from their introduction.

A Drink Before the War introduces first-person narrator Patrick Kenzie and his PI partner Angie. Both grew up in Dorchester, a working-class section of Boston, where they still live and work. And both are tough, able to negotiate the political and social realities of their workplace and to give as good as they get.

The problem with this book is that Lehane has Patrick indulge in frequent outbursts about various social injustices, for example:

There is a war going on. It’s happening in playgrounds, not health clubs. It’s fought on cement, not lawns. It’s fought with pipes and bottles, and lately, automatic weapons. And as long as it doesn’t push through the heavy oak doors where they fight with prep school educations and filibusters and two-martini lunches, it will never actually exist.

South Central L.A. could burn for a decade, and most people wouldn’t smell the smoke unless the flames reached Rodeo Drive. (p. 108)

Fortunately, in Gone, Baby, Gone Lehane demonstrates that he has matured as a writer. By the time of this later novel he has learned how to let his story carry the message instead of resorting to his lead character’s tirades to make the point. This later Patrick better embodies the noir tradition Lehane’s best work represents.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

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