Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane
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.