BOOK REVIEW: ‘Small Mercies’ by Dennis Lahane

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Dennis Lahane’s latest book “Small Mercies” is set in Boston in 1974, just weeks away from court-ordered school desegregation. The novel is set in a time of anger, hatred and bigotry, and the language reflects that. I will not be quoting any passages. The story is gripping, but brace yourself for the vulgarity. 

There is a tremendous amount of racism in the novel. It is hard to have sympathy for the racist characters. And almost every character is racist. The comments and jokes detract from the book. This novel has received stellar reviews; however, I cannot give it high praise.

The novel closely follows the history of Boston in the 1970s. Opposition to the court-ordered bussing started with peaceful protests but grew more and more violent with the passage of time. On the opening day of school, the buses carrying African American children were hit by eggs, bricks and bottles. Police in combat gear fought to control the angry protesters. The protests were worse in South Boston, the city’s mainly Irish-Catholic neighborhood

Lead character Mary Pat Hennessy is of Irish descent, a single mother working two jobs to support herself and her teenaged daughter, Jules. One Saturday night, Jules goes out with her best friend and their boyfriends. On Sunday morning, Mary Pat wakes up early to go to her second job as a nursing home assistant. She realizes Jules has not come home, but assumes she is spending the night with her friend. At work, the only Black assistant does not show up. As the shift continues, the staff learns that the assistant’s son (Augie) has been found dead on the railroad tracks.

When Mary Pat returns from work, Jules is still not home, and her friends claim they have not seen her. Their stories of the night before are identical. When Mary Pat calls the police, they refuse to look for Jules until 72 hours have passed. 

Meanwhile, the police are focusing  their resources on solving Augie’s murder. More and more connections between the missing Jules and Augie’s death are coming to light. Soon, there are rumors about organized crime being involved.  Also, more witnesses are speaking up about seeing four white teenagers with a Black man at the train station around midnight. What seemed like two separate events appear to be connected. Still, the police are not providing much assistance to find Jules. 

Mary Pat is hurt, angry and helpless. She realizes if Jules is going to be found, she will have to be the one who finds her. She becomes part detective, part vigilante and part stalker. She hounds the police, demanding answers. She follows the friends who were with Jules the night of her disappearance. And she even follows some of the organized crime members who have been mentioned as having a possible connection to Jules.

Even though the novel was hard to read, I learned a lot about the history of Boston. And like Dennis LaHane’s other novels, “Small Mercies” is a best seller.

Dennis Lahane grew up in Boston. His first novel, “Drink Before War” won the Shamus Award (an award for best detective fiction). Four of his novels have been adapted into films. He adapted his fifth book himself. He has written for the HBO series “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” as well as the Netflix series “Bloodline.”

Cathy Lay Mayor grew up in Cullman and graduated from Cullman High School in 1976. She says when she writes book reviews, she tries to remember what Mrs. Gilbert taught her in 11th-grade English. She lived in Dothan for more than 30 years and is married with three adult children and six grandchildren. She retired to Panama City, but still calls Alabama home.