With his best and perhaps last novel, Dennis Lehane takes us to South Boston in Sept 1974. The summer has been a scorcher, and the schools have been ordered to desegregate, beginning with students being bused between the white school of South Boston and the predominantly black school of Roxbury. Tempers erupt, protests break out, and Southie residents plan not to comply with the order.
Mary Pat Fennessy is asked to join the Southie protest against the bussing and make placards. She reluctantly goes along because she’s a Southie through and through, from her pride that she’s never left South Boston to her hatred of anyone who isn’t a Southie, especially the blacks of Roxbury. But she has troubles of her own. Her frustrated 17-year-old daughter, Jules keeps asking, “But what’s it all about?” Mary Pat doesn’t know what she means and is afraid for her.
Mary Pat drinks Miller High Life, chain smokes, and knows how to fight physically but not how to deal with questions like that. She’s tough and can take on almost any man. At age 42 she works as a hospital aide at Meadowlane Manor run by the nuns and has picked up two shifts at the shoe warehouse so that the gas can be turned on again. She makes just enough to keep her and Jules clothed, fed, and in cigarettes and beer. After one husband died, one left her, and her only son overdosed on heroin after returning from Vietnam, Mary Pat has turned inward and angry. She holds it together for her daughter.
Until her daughter goes missing. At first she’s not worried, but her motherly instincts send her to Marty Butler who runs Southie. Everyone knows Butler is in the game of “protection.” Butler has cops on his payroll, and a judge and congressman in his pocket. Mary Pat has been taught not to involve the police. Marty promises to find Jules. But when Butler does nothing, Mary Pat beats up Jules’ supposed boyfriend “Rum” for information, and Marty warns her to stop causing trouble. Her refrain remains, “I just want to find my daughter.” When Marty says Jules probably took off to Florida and hands Mary Pat a bag of money, she knows that her daughter is dead. Now she’s off the rails and will do anything to find out what happened to Jules including going against Marty Butler.
The same night Jules went missing, a young black man named Auggie dies on the Southie side of the subway tracks. A new voice arrives on the scene: Detective Bobby Coyne. He lives with five unmarried sisters and a brother who is a failed priest. He’s a decent cop and investigates the death of Auggie. When all evidence points to Jules being one of four people who were the last to see Auggie before he died, Mary Pat turns to him to find out what happened to Jules, even though the outcome could turn deadly for her.
Lehane gives us an unflinching, realistic glimpse into a world that didn’t want to change even when it was detrimental not to change. He uses the language and epithets of the time, so Small Mercies is not an easy read. But to “clean up” the story would weaken what was historically accurate. Small Mercies shows how hate gets a toehold in a community—or, more importantly, how hate is manipulated for the gain of a few. He has a scene later in the book that brings this home, showing that the few who feed the hate and division don’t care about their own, never mind the “other.” It’s just a means to money and power. The sad part of this thriller is that so much depicted in the story has not changed, especially how the emotions of a group can be directed away from what is really happening to them. Lehane, however, leaves us with Bobby Coyne, a decent man who believes in hope and that things will change. This is Lehane at the top of his game.
More Amateur Sleuths