Monthly Archives: January 2016
Early on Dennis Lehane writes, “It’s a place where the people are grateful for the seasons, because at least they confirm that time is actually moving on.” After reading the book, I’m not sure time has moved on, not for the Boston of his novels and not for the world we find ourselves living in today.
As a reader, I opened “A Drink Before the War” expecting an honest look inside Boston, the real Boston; I wanted gritty and working class, honest, drunk, and proud of every crack in the sidewalk because that was the sidewalk in your neighborhood, in front of your house, and every busted knuckle from the shifts you pulled to pay for that house.
That much I’d been told to expect about reading Dennis Lehane.
As a writer, I went into this book needing something very specific to help me and looked to Lehane just as I look to Loren Estleman’s ‘Amos Walker’ series and Robert Parker’s ‘Spencer’ books. Lehane and Estleman are very similar writers in that their cities, Boston and Detroit, become characters just as important as the detectives and the crooked businessmen and bent politicians their heroes run up against.
I found what I was looking for, enough that I’ve already started the second in the ‘Kenzie & Gennaro’ series, “Darkness, Take My Hand”. (It helped that the edition I have includes the first two books in one volume, but more importantly, it restarts the page numbers so I can accurately update my reading status on Good reads.)
What I didn’t expect (and seems to be a pattern now after the correlations to the Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil) was how current some of the subject matter would still be twenty years after it was written.
“A Drink Before the War” was originally published just a couple years after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that erupted after the Rodney King verdict. Lehane referenced the riots but also went into great detail in describing the racism and segregation that was woven into the fabric of the Boston neighborhoods he wrote about. So much of what drives his characters throughout the book is directly tied into race and the anger and violence that are reactions to the clearly divided worlds.
It’s terrifying to read a book written twenty years ago which was so firmly rooted in its present day and realize that it could just as easily have been written today.
Change every mention of Los Angeles to Ferguson or Baltimore, and make every reference of Rodney King instead about Michael Brown or Freddie Gray, or any of the growing number of black men being beaten or killed by police who are not held accountable. And then, as you continue to read, and it makes you sick that nothing has changed and by how familiar it all sounds, imagine what it must be like for the people trapped in that world.
“You hear it most when politicians who live in places like Hyannis Port and Beacon Hill and Wellesley make decisions that affect people who live in Dorchester and Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, and then step back and say there isn’t a war going on. There is a war going on. It’s happening in playgrounds, not health clubs… And as long as it doesn’t push through the heavy oak doors where they fight with prep school educations and filibusters and two-martini lunches, it will never actually exist.”
My only complaint when I started reading Robert Parker’s ‘Spenser’ series came in the first book, “The Godwulf Manuscript” when Spenser, crossing a college quad, described in great detail the clothing of several students he passed. For nearly two pages Parker shared the early seventies fashion to be found on a college campus, displayed by characters without names or purpose or bearing in any way on the story at all, and when I started the second book in the series, “God Save the Child”, it seemed I was in for more of the same.
Maybe it was that this was the second book and with that came a growing appreciation or familiarity with Parker’s writing style, but I started to understand why this was the case and why it had to be. Spenser narrates these stories and he’s as clever and sharp-witted as any private detective from the days of Chandler and Hammett, and big enough to get away with having a smart mouth if the guys he’s mouthing off to can keep up and realize he’s insulting them.
But where Parker goes into exhaustingly more detail then the classics of detective fiction is less about sloppy or tedious writing. In order to put us in his detective’s shoes, he has to also put us in his detective’s head.
It took Spenser just about explaining this to his love interest in “God Save the Child” for me to understand as well, so I clearly don’t make a very good detective. Spenser, on the other hand, is good at what he does specifically because he notices and remembers everything. He sees a person’s shoes and remembers their pants, the color of socks and shirt and jacket, the cut and color of hair and whether the glasses were prescription or just for show, and whether they matched the rest of the outfit as well; and he does this for every person he passes, everyone he comes across from the moment he meets a client because any one of these people may be a part of his case, and he may need that information later.
Spenser isn’t a hero or a supercop or some action star. He’s just the guy working a small-time case trying to figure out where someone or something went and whether it needed to be returned once he found it. In the course of this he’ll tell you what he made for breakfast and describe his workout routine, and you might even be able to cook a pork tenderloin en croûte if you pay attention.
Robert Parker understands that this is tedious work, undertaken by the kind of man willing to notice details and keep each and every one of them tucked away for the moment he will need to put those pieces together the right way. From an author’s perspective, to realistically write such a tedious undertaking itself needs to become tedious.
This writing and narrative style that at first turned me off of Robert Parker is precisely what takes the reader more completely into the world and mind of a private detective than any author has before. He does this not by hinting at the details the reader should remember or teasing the threads that will be important later, but by immersing the audience in the overwhelming detail of the world and letting them sift through to identify the important parts alongside the narrator. It’s this style that makes the Spenser series so intriguing, and interesting to continue reading.