How can this be my first Dennis Lehane book? How did I miss someone who writes like this?
I went into the book in complete ignorance because I liked the title.
I was immediately impressed by a new style of hard-boiled PI that mixes swagger with self-deprecation, reluctant empathy and hate-driven violence.
My only point of confusion was why the author had set this piece of edgy, I’m-self-confident as long as I don’t think about it or the dreams don’t get me, noir. in the 1990s. It took me ages to realise it was PUBLISHED in the 1990s.
“A Drink Before The War” is set in 1990s Boston and is wrapped around a plot involving corrupt politicians covering up the truth about the worthless excuses for human beings that they are, gang warfare, blackmail and multiple attempts on the lives of our two PIs.
The novel is powered by two challenging themes that feel contemporary: racial hatred as an unchangeable reality and the violence of abusive fathers and husbands. These two themes are braided together to explore what happens to the powerless when love and violence are twisted around one another and the corrosive effect long-harboured hate has on our ability to be human.
I admired Lehane’s ability to provide a bold and ballsy shell for the two PIs while still letting us see the doubts and hatreds that eat at them. There’s no preaching here, no moralising. This is not a discussion of issues and options, it’s an up close and personal look at the consequences of abuse and hate, the hard choices they face us with and how much it costs us to make the right call.
The story is told mainly from Kenzie’s point of view, so it’s his head we get to crawl inside, his nightmares we share and his history that we discover, but Gennaro, his tough, competent, friends-since-childhood female partner is also well drawn. She is married to a man who beats her, has a partner who is constantly trying to woo her, is half the size of people trying to kill her and is still the most grounded and determined of the two PIs.
The plot twists but doesn’t cheat. The setting feels authentic. The dialogue is sharp without becoming mannered, The violence is disturbing and morally ambiguous.
This is noir at its best. I’m sorry I missed these in the 90s but the good news is that there are five more Kenzie and Gennaro books in print so this year I’m going to enjoy catching up.