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Dennis Lehane
Author of the Kenzie/Gennaro series among others

These reviews originally appeared in somewhat different form in Ex Libris Reviews. Reprinted with permission.

Books reviewed:
The Kenzie/Gennaro Series
A Drink Before the War
Darkness, Take My Hand
Gone, Baby, Gone
Prayers for Rain
Non-series Novels
Mystic River

Dennis Lehane, A Drink Before the War

A Drink Before the War is the first of Dennis Lehane's Boston-based detective series starring Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. From their office in the bell tower of a local church, they are hired by important local politicians to retrieve some sensitive documents they believe were stolen by Jenna Angeline, an employee of the state.

Kenzie and Gennaro's search for these documents takes them into the other world of Boston: the world of guns, drugs, and lost hope. Along the way they meet important players including Angeline's husband and son, who both figure prominently in the story. Child abuse and domestic violence also play a vital role in this novel.

Interestingly, Lehane makes Patrick into a truly human character, flawed to the point of almost being unsympathetic. But his relationship with Angie is the foundation of the novel and is quite moving in its own right, especially in the difficulty of keeping it from getting too complicated.

A Drink Before the War is one of the best detective novels I've read in a very long time and--since Lehane had been recommended to me long ago--I regret it has taken me this long to discover it.

Dennis Lehane, Darkness, Take My Hand

And as good as A Drink Before the War is, Darkness, Take My Hand is even better. Lehane's characters feel (if this is possible) even more like real people. There is a character-related surprise at the end that floored me.

One thing, though, you must read A Drink Before the War before Darkness, Take My Hand or you will not understand most of what is going on between Kenzie and Gennaro. This one layers onto the first one's foundation. And Lehane writes dreams like nobody's business.

I am going to end here and go read more of these terrific mystery novels.

Dennis Lehane, Sacred

Sacred is the third entry in the Boston-based detective series starring private sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. A dying billionaire hires the pair to find his missing daughter, Desiree, a case which leads them into a cult-like group and down to Florida. Desiree is presented as a great manipulator--so beautiful that men drop everything to do her every whim. Kenzie rejoins his former mentor Jay Becker in sleuthing a case that twists and turns and one in which the "villains" keep changing.

Not as good in some ways as the others, but better in other ways, Sacred is a solid entry that shows Lehane is testing himself as his books become more and more ambitious. He's really using that degree in creative writing to its utmost.

Dennis Lehane, Gone, Baby, Gone

Gone, Baby, Gone is the fourth in the series. It is also the first one from Lehane that does not require starting at the beginning of the series to understand the relationship between the two main characters. It is going along smoothly by now and needs no introduction.

Lehane has crossed into new territory this time, making the case a missing child abduction. This ups the stakes and Gone, Baby, Gone contains many heartbreaking scenes and many truly despicable supporting characters. Lehane gives us a mother whose child has been taken, and we don't know whether to pity her or smack some sense into her.

But he delivers again on the story front. This is another page-turner and I can only hope that he begins churning out more of these by the time I finish the current series. The Kenzie/Gennaro series is also one of the few mysteries that make me feel like I'm reading literature, albeit well-plotted literature. There's something here that brings these above the normal contents of the genre. Some of the exchanges are read-out-loud funny.

Dennis Lehane, Prayers for Rain

Prayers for Rain is the fifth (and at this writing, the final) installment of the Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro detective mystery series. Because of events at the end of the last installment, Gone, Baby, Gone, Angie has moved out and Patrick begins this case on his own. A former client, Karen Nichols, is found dead of suicide. Kenzie feels guilty because she had called him for help just as he was going on vacation months ago, and he never called back, so he tries to find out what happened. "She'd been drowning, and I'd been busy," he says. Turns out she was descending into drugs and prostitution but why would this young woman change so quickly in such a short time?

Lehane delivers another wonderful novel. He's really hit his stride and the books just keep getting better. Kenzie gets himself embroiled into hassle after hassle with his friend Bubba Rogowski along for help with strong-arm tactics. Bubba has been in the previous books, but here he flowers into a fuller character. It was nice to see the different sides to what is essentially a violent, but loyal, man. I understand that Lehane is out stretching himself with novels about different, non-series, characters, but I hope he returns to Patrick, Angie, and Bubba soon so I can again experience the magic.

Dennis Lehane, Mystic River

Jimmy Marcus, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle are all childhood friends growing up in the Boston area until a traumatic event causes them to drift apart. Twenty-five years later, another traumatic event brings them back together: Trooper Devine investigates the death of Marcus' teenage daughter and finds that the evidence uncannily points to...Boyle.

Mystic River is not a continuation of his popular Kenzie/Gennaro sleuthing series. Luckily, however, for his fans, it is even better than that series, which I raved about in these pages. Lehane, with each successive book, just keep improving and Mystic River is his best yet.

As far as his storytelling skills go, Lehane is right up there with Stephen King at setting up mood and backstory, as well as at creating believable characters--characters that are so real that their foibles and idiosyncracies made me personally uncomfortable, like I knew them. And the plot is almost Shakespearean in its tragic buildup and payoff.

Mystic River is the best book I've read so far this year. Lehane starts off with a level of discomfort that sustains until the shocking finish. Along the way, I learned some things about the nature of friendship and family that, perhaps, were best left unlearned. But for a book like this, that's a compliment. Lehane is definitely one of the best crime novelists working today, and certainly the best of his generation. I can't wait to get my hands on his next book, Shutter Island.

© 2003 by Craig Clarke and Ex Libris Reviews