Small Mercies

Dennis Lehane

Small Mercies
Little, Brown Book Group
United Kingdom
25 April 2023

Small Mercies

Dennis Lehane

New York Times bestselling author Dennis Lehane returns with a masterpiece to rival Mystic River - an all-consuming tale of revenge, family love, festering hate, and insidious power, set against one of the most tumultuous episodes in Boston's history.

'Mrs. Fennessy, please go home.'

'And do what?'

'Whatever you do when you're home.'

'And then what?'

'Get up the next day and do it again.'

She shakes her head. 'That's not living.'

'It is if you can find the small blessings.'

She smiles, but her eyes shine with agony. 'All my small blessings are gone.'

In the summer of 1974 a heatwave blankets Boston and Mary Pat Fennessey is trying to stay one step ahead of the bill collectors. Mary Pat has lived her entire life in the housing projects of 'Southie', the Irish American enclave that stubbornly adheres to old tradition and stands proudly apart.

One night Mary Pat's teenage daughter Jules stays out late and doesn't come home. That same evening, a young Black man is found dead, struck by a subway train under mysterious circumstances.

The two events seem unconnected. But Mary Pat, propelled by a desperate search for her missing daughter, begins turning over stones best left untouched - asking questions that bother Marty Butler, chieftain of the Irish mob, and the men who work for him, men who don't take kindly to any threat to their business.

Set against the hot, tumultuous months when the city's desegregation of its public schools exploded in violence, Small Mercies is a superb thriller, a brutal depiction of criminality and power, and an unflinching portrait of the dark heart of American racism.


Desegregation of the Boston Public Schools is mandated by the Massachusetts State Legislature and takes effect on Thursday morning, 12 September, 1974. The buses that transport Black students to South Boston High School are accompanied by police escort into scenes of violent protest by the largely Irish American residents of South Boston. The White students mostly refuse to attend the schools in the Black neighbourhoods.

In this highly charged atmosphere, we are introduced to Mary Pat Fennessy who is waiting for her teenage daughter, Jules to come home from a night out with friends. As she waits, she hears that a Black teenager has been killed nearby and that five White teens were seen fleeing the scene. Her investigation and emotions propel this story and it is testament to the author’s skill that we care so much about such a deeply flawed and, at times, unlikable person.

Dennis Lehane has written many books, starting with the early gritty crime series that included Gone Baby Gone (made into a film directed by Ben Affleck and starring his brother Casey). He then wrote the masterpiece Mystic River, which this novel sits comfortably next to. Some of his more recent historical novels have felt a bit dry and listless and maybe weighed down by research. This book feels like he has lived his childhood in Southie in the 1970s and grew up with these events, people and attitudes around him. It pulsates with a raw vitality and visceral atmosphere.

Once again, Lehane deals with the terrible effects that violence, alcoholism, racism, and neglect have on children. Currently, Lehane mostly makes his living producing and writing (lucratively) for television such as The Wire and Black Bird. This feels like a labor of love and is one of the best literary crime novels I have read for a long time.

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