Small Mercies: A Novel

  • By Dennis Lehane
  • Harper
  • 320 pp.

A tough-as-nails Southie mom searches for her missing teen.

Small Mercies: A Novel

Real-life events furnish the gritty setting for Dennis Lehane’s Small Mercies, his starkly naturalistic — and often shockingly rendered — new novel.

It’s the 1970s, and “Southie,” a working-class Boston neighborhood, is facing a crisis. A federal judge, intent on desegregation, has decreed that a contingent of Southie’s sons and daughters is to be bused to a predominantly Black high school in another neighborhood. A corresponding group of Black kids will be bused from the far neighborhood to Southie’s school. For its clannish Irish American denizens, this is an outrage, a threat to their way of life. Plans are laid for a mass protest.

Southie folks, as Lehane portrays them, are community-minded and family-focused. But check any nascent glimmer of fellow feeling; they’re also coarse-grained, crude, and overtly racist. (Warning: brace for an N-word barrage, in word and thought, from many characters.) This inhospitable domain is ruled by mob boss Marty Butler, who regularly “made a problem vanish by making a person vanish.” You may recognize him as a fictional alter-ego for Boston’s real-life Whitey Bulger.

At the outset, Mary Pat Fennessy, a fortysomething, hard-knocks single mother, is a true believer in Southie’s exclusionist ethos and a volunteer organizer of the coming Butler-spawned anti-busing demonstration. But before the event happens, Mary Pat’s daughter, 17, goes missing. Julie — along with three mule-dim friends — has crossed paths with a young man of color whose disabled car has forced him to set out after midnight through Southie, a perilous transit for a Black guy. The next morning, his body is discovered at a nearby subway station. And Julie, only Julie, is nowhere to be found.

The girl’s friends are not forthcoming with all they know about Julie or the dead man, either to a worried Mary Pat or to the police. The local thugs who know the truth also hold the line when Mary Pat pushes them. This sends her on a frantic quest to find out what happened and where her daughter is now.

In mystery world, this is a familiar premise: A solitary amateur, faced with silence all around, sets out to unravel a crime singlehandedly. It’s a variant on the usual gumshoe tale. But Lehane gives this archetype an added, surprising twist, as Mary Pat, “all hard edges and angles, built for battle,” grows increasingly certain that Julie has met a bad end.

She goes rogue, abandoning all previous loyalties — to her housewife friends, to Southie itself, and to the Marty Butler canon of good behavior. She takes a grimly direct approach, more Mike Hammer than Jane Marple, in confronting one of Julie’s tight-lipped pals from the fateful night:

“When she breaks his nose with her right fist, it sounds like a cue ball shattering a tight rack. The whole bar hears it. He screams like a girl, and she hits him again, exact same spot, drives the punch through his hands which are soft and covering that nose. Then she punches him in the eye, bringing her left fist to the party this time.”

What began as a worried mother’s search for her only child becomes a bloody vigilante procedural as Mary Pat faces down her Southie neighbors, gang boss Butler and his cronies, and the police.

Fans of crime fiction should know Lehane’s work well. From a debut in local-color P.I. mysteries, he has deftly broadened his range into more thematic territory: prestige TV work (“The Wire”) and richly configured literary sagas of guilt and reckoning (“Mystic River”). But his fidelity to subtle genre touches has persisted throughout, and happily so.

For Lehane’s Small Mercies heroine, and for readers, there are stark epiphanies along Mary Pat’s headlong descent, heartbreaking moments as her one-time certainties are wrenched away. Through every suspenseful turn, a remarkable effect persists. Through every bloody excess on her careening march toward a dire awakening, this Boston mother remains wholly sympathetic. We’re behind her all the way, battered and noble, with Southie allotting her only small mercies.

This is a novel aglow with brilliant, painful ironies, a virtuoso demonstration of skill and control in revenge-tragedy form. Don’t let this book pass you by.

Bob Duffy reviews frequently for the Independent.

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