Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

This is a first-class crime novel by American writer Dennis Lehane, with a plot that builds steadily towards a tense show-down. But it’s the characters that make the story stand apart from the everyday: the more moral ones have foibles, while the wicked seem ordinary.

It is set mainly in a working-class, Irish American neighbourhood of Boston known as Southie. The year is 1974 and America still has troops in Vietnam and President Nixon has just resigned.

The main character is Mrs Mary Patricia Fennessey, (known as Mary Pat), the daughter of Louise ‘Wheezie’ Flanagan, ‘a Hall of Fame Irish Tough Broad’. And as we discover, like mother like daughter.

The driving force for the narrative is the disappearance of Mary Pat’s 17 year-old daughter Julie (known as Jules) and Mary Pat’s increasingly desperate attempts to find her. We  gradually learn that there is an intertwining thread to her disappearance with the death of a young black man at a local train station.

After an autopsy this becomes a suspicious death, which is being investigated by Detective Sgt Michael ‘Bobby’ Coyne and his offsider Vincent. Coyne is a decent man who served as an adviser in Vietnam and was a heroin addict at one stage. He is in his mid-thirties and has done some hard years but we’re told that… his tone was almost courtly (and he) has a surprisingly gentle voice that doesn’t match the rest of him (p 69).

Apart from Mary Pat and Bobby, the other important character is local crime lord Marty Butler.

Butler uses violence and bribes to rule the neighbourhood. His chief enforcer is Frankie ‘Tombstone’ Toomey, a killer who is linked romantically with Jules. Another lieutenant is Brian Shea and Lehane writes, ’like most of the people who work for Marty Butler, Brian dresses neater than a deacon’ (p 2). It is widely believed that Butler has cops and judges on his payroll, so getting a water-tight conviction for any of his crew is a tall order.

Mary Pat is only 42 years old but she’s already notched up a cupboard full of sorrows and regrets. Her son Noel served in Vietnam but died of a drug overdose upon his return. Her first husband Dukie, who was an independent safe-cracker, has also been declared legally deceased. To rub salt in the wounds, her partner Kenny has left her. She also seems estranged from her remaining siblings, so Jules is the only one left she truly cares about.

Ken Fen, as he is known, has taken a job in the mail room of Harvard University. While it’s a short train ride from Southie it is a million miles away culturally. The scene where Mary Pat goes to see Ken at work to find out any news of Jules is poignant.

The story takes place against a back-drop of simmering racial tension as a judge has ruled that the mainly black High School must integrate with the mostly white South Boston High school. Many parents and students are deeply upset at this ruling and protests are organised.

The strong tribal feelings in the community, where everyone knows everyone else for several generations, are rock solid. So to go against those conventions, which Mary Pat eventually does, is reckless in the extreme. But she’s a woman who feels she’s lost all of importance to her and she is a born fighter. So she goes after those she considers responsible for Jules’ fate.

Lehane grew up in a similar neighbourhood and he has a great ear for the language spoken by the locals. While there’s a lot of swearing and expletives used by the characters in remains wholly believable. Funnily enough there’s also a code that you don’t swear in front of a woman you don’t know and no mention of genitalia either.

There are several well-crafted observations about language that strike a chord. Common sayings in Southie include …But whatta ya gonna do?  It is what it is and G’bless. Lehane writes: Phrases that provide comfort by removing the speaker’s power. Phrases that say it’s all up to someone else, you’re blameless. Blameless, sure, but powerless too. (24).

I would thoroughly recommend this engaging, taut story with its most unusual central character.

Dennis Lehane was born in 1965 in Boston, the youngest of five children. His parents, who born emigrated from Ireland, worked in retail and a school cafeteria . He has written over a dozen novels, many set in Boston, and four of which have been made into movies (including Mystic River and Shutter Island). He has also been a successful scriptwriter for TV shows including The Wire (2002- 2008) and Mr Mercedes (2017). Lehane has also taught fiction writing at several Universities, including Harvard and now lives in California.

Small Mercies


by Dennis Lehane

Hachette Australia

ISBN:978 034914 576 1

$32.99; 316pp

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top