Dennis Lehane

Small Mercies

An honestly written tale of a woman's revenge set in 1970s Boston.

May 2, 2023
Dimitris Passas

Boston, 1974: the whole city is in uproar due to the imminent implementation of the municipal plan to desegregate the state's public schools by busing the students between traditionally white and black neighborhoods to new educational facilities, thus compelling the racially diverse population of minors to mingle within the school environment. This desegregation plan triggered a series of violent protests with the white Bostoners refusing to accept the government's decree which forced them to send their children in areas where reverse racism was predominant at the time. Small Mercies is -chronologically- set during the first violent reactions against the program whose controversy continued to plague the city all the way until 1976. The demographic shifts pertaining to Boston's school population as well as a decline of public-school enrollment were the most critical and lasting effects of the so-called "Boston Desegregation Busing Crisis". Dennis Lehane uses a real historical event as the foundation of a story that concerns the struggle of a young woman living in the southern neighborhoods of the city, "the Southie" as the locals call it, and resides in the Commonwealth Housing Projects, an underprivileged place that tended to give birth to strong and resolute individuals who had to fight for everything in the course of their lives.

Mary Pat is the protagonist, a tough as nails single mother of a daughter, teenager Jules, who is still grieving for the death of her son, Noel, due to his terrible immersion in heroin use, a blight that seems to have cost the lives of many young people in Boston during the previous few decades. When Jules disappears after a night out with friends, Mary Pat faces her worst nightmare as it is doubtful if she is gonna hack the loss of one more child. The case of Jules's sudden vanishing is more perplexed than a simple case of disappearance as at the night in question, another tragic event took place in the area where Mary Pat lives. A young black man, Auggie, is found dead in the metro tracks of a secluded station and the circumstances around his death remain largely uncharted. Some witnesses claim that Auggie was running away from a group of four white kids, and one of them was Jules. The case falls on the shoulders of Bobby Coyne, a Boston detective who has fought in Vietnam and, as the plot moves forward, we learn more regarding his traumatic war experiences as well as other significant moments of his past such as his addiction to the needle.

The entire city is reigned by Marty, a local mob boss who is responsible for all the major dealings in his turf that includes both the white and the black districts. As the investigation in Auggie's death evolves, Jules's case is spurned, thus forcing Mary Pat to begin her own personal quest to learn about her daughter's whereabouts. Though Bobby and her never quite collaborate in the strict sense of the word, they share a great deal of respect for one another and the two of them, in the end, will inevitably have to confront Marty and his group of goons who are related to the story. Small Mercies begins as a police procedural with the added historical spin of the busing crisis but transforms into a relentless revenge story with Mary Pat leading the show and proving that, even though she is just a poor, lone woman, her boldness and fighting spirit can overpower even some of the most vigorous criminals and vicious thugs. It is not an easy-to-read novel as it contains some truly disturbing scenes of violence that, nonetheless, remain solidly attached to the main storyline and make sense, narrative-wise, due to the superb characterization by Lehane who returns after six years of authorial inertia, his last novel was Since We Fell, published in 2017, to remind the global readership of his unique qualities as a crime writer and prove, once more, what a gifted storyteller he is.

Though the story and the plot are not comparable with the complexity and intricacy of Lehane's masterpiece Mystic River, a narrative which was adapted into feature film by Clint Eastwood in 2003 with the cast featuring some Hollywood heavy-hitter actors such as Sean Penn, Tim Robins, and Kevin Bacon, Small Mercies packs a firm punch due to to the author's eye for detail that leaves no major aspect of the book unattended. The text is oozing realism, that sometimes may be mistaken as cynicism, and both the descriptive parts and the dialogue are spot-on and ring true to our mind and ears. Mary Pat is one of the most fascinating protagonists in this year's crime fiction publications and her persona is outlined with Lehane providing small doses of information and large parts of action, so we are left in no doubt in respect to her essential traits and motivations. Mary Pat can be seen as an archetypal heroine who is prone to getting involved in brawls despite being usually outnumbered by many and whose love for her family is the cradle and cornerstone of the novel's plot. She is the paradigm of a solitary person who is ploughing through life based solely on her emotions and -primal- instincts. Her revenge scheme commences after the first half of the story, following a harrowing revelation that alters its calculus. To sum up, a quality story, skillfully written.

I want to thank Netgalley and the publisher (Little Brown Book Group Uk, Abacus) for providing a free ARC of this much-anticipated comeback of one of America's forefront crime writers of our era.


Small Mercies
Dennis Lehane
Little Brown Book Group UK, Abacus

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