A Drink Before the War
by Dennis Lehane
Review by Christopher Friesen

Never judge a book by its cover? I always do.

The book is always better than the movie? Not always, there are a few exceptions that I would argue.

On a related front, I would offer this piece of advice, never judge an author by a movie made out of one of his books. Had I gone with my gut and passed on A Drink Before the War -- based on my experience with Mystic River: The Movie --I don't think I could have forgiven myself.

Well, er, I guess I wouldn't know what I had missed so there would be no need for forgiveness, but whatever...

The point is, when I opened this book up, Lehane's prose leapt up off the page and gave me a solid back hand across my face as if to say, “I told you to give me a chance.”

So now one more piece of advice for you, do not pass on this book.

A Drink before the War is the first of a five-book series featuring Boston private Ipinvestigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. The book opens with Kenzie meeting a three Boston politicians who need some highly sensitive “documents” recovered from a cleaning lady who worked in the State Legislature. They've come to Kenzie because his reputation precedes him and because they knew his father, a fireman hero-turned-city councilor. Kenzie, sensing an easy payday, takes the job.

But the job that Kenzie thought would be easy soon turns out to be far more difficult than he had expected. As he and Gennaro follow the leads in search of Jenna Angeline they stir up the dust on the sidewalks of some unsavory characters' turf and find themselves caught in the middle of an impending gang war.

Meanwhile Kenzie is fighting is own existential battle with his late father, trying to reconcile the pain he suffered at his abusive hand as a child with a public father who is seen by everyone in the city as a hero. And Gennaro, the attractive, tough girl from the neighborhood, who exists for Kenzie as a forbidden fruit, has to deal with the current reality of her abusive husband.

When Kenzie and Gennaro find the “documents” they were originally hired to locate, they realize that their case has become much deeper, much more depraved and much riskier than originally sispected. And then the gang war erupts spreading violence across the city and bringing the threat of death to the door of their office.

In the end Kenzie and Gennaro emerge, not victorious, not virtuous, but alive, reconciled and with enough moral authority between the two of them to be considered the good guy's.

Lehane's prose can only be described as powerful, evocative and emotionally charged. He handles dark subjects with care and provides glimpses of humor in the bleakest of circumstance. In addition to his rapid fire dialog and graceful description, Lehane makes subtle --but not always apt -- use of literary devices. If there were one criticism in his writing it would be in the credability of such lines as this simile, spoken by Kenzie in a rather tense situation:

“I said, “Well Marion, seeing how this is already about as crowded as a Japanese camera convention, I don't figure one more body'll hurt…”

And the book is filled with many more such clunkers. But the good news is that if you're not looking for them, you won't notice them. In fact as I was reading through this book I had to stop and reread several pages just so I could figure out why I was finding this book so smooth, so effortless, and so good.

A Drink Before the War is not only a solid story, strongly plotted and populated by fully developed realistic characters, it is a well told one. The book is fast paced, with plenty of gun play, car chases and fist fights. And Lehane doesn't shy away from difficult subjects either; he handles issues of race, and youth violence with maturity and honesty but never allows his characters to become didactic.

Denis Lehane is a storyteller of remarkable skill, and though I am loath to rave about any book I will repeat the last piece of advice that I gave: Do not pass on this book. On the contrary, seek it out and make a point of reading it. You will not be disappointed.

A Drink before the War
By Dennis Lehane
Harcourt; 1st edition, November 1994

267 pages
Buy this book

Review respectfully submitted by Christopher Friesen, November 2006.

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