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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
A Drink Before the War - Dennis Lehane

Though dressed up and sent out as a mystery, A Drink Before the War, is also a fascinating examination of violence (and to some extent, racism), specifically child abuse and its repercussions on society and the individual.

As someone who had a violent, abusive parent, I particularly appreciate Patrick Kenzie's (the protagonist) view on the matter. A big, tough-guy private detective, he is nonetheless haunted by the ghost of violence visited on him as a child by his "hero," firefighter father. With my history, on reading what his father did to him, I was just as furious with his mother, as his father. If that were my child, hero-dad would have woken up with a knife in his chest and his balls in his mouth.

Which, I guess, is Exhibit A on how violence begets more violence, or at least lurid fantasies thereof.

But Patrick's character arc doesn't include the usual tiresome trope where he forgives dear old dad and become a better person, cue the violins, ugh. Instead he take the wiser tack, noting that the best course is to find a way to live with the scars, which will never, ever fade. Because monsters will always be monsters, forgiven or otherwise.

The ugliness never goes away, never comes out, no matter what you do. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive. All you can hope to do is control it, to force it all into one tight ball in one tight place and keep it there, a constant weight.



Along these same lines is the notion, no doubt controversial, that for some monsters, there is no redemption short of a bullet. Patrick is unapologetic and pragmatic in his approach to dealing with the villains in his life. Unfortunately, at times, Angie, his partner, seems to drop into the cliche "female" role of conscience. But to her credit, when the baddie needs to stop breathing, she makes him/her dead, no hesitation. The girl can wield a gun, and with a minimum of whinging about her guilt afterwards.

The story, in summary. Patrick and Angie are hired by three politicians who are slimier than barrel of snails. Their mission: find a missing cleaning lady. Said cleaning lady went missing along with important documents from one of the politico's offices. Once Angie and Patrick find the cleaning lady, Patrick quickly realizes that the documents are much more than the usual evidence of bribery and other mundane corruption.

In no time, the simple case escalates into a something far darker and perverse, with ties reaching into Boston's seedier side and an ongoing gang war. This is where, sometimes, the story gets a little ridiculous, with gun fights in train stations, and crazy car chases.

But Lehane's sharp, biting description of Boston, done as only can be by someone who knows a place well, offsets the silly. As does the thematic depth of the story, and the exploration of race and violence in America.

Because this is a gritty, ugly tale, it's not a keeper, per say, but I already bought the next Kenzie & Gennaro book, so obviously, Lehane's writing works for me.