Dennis Lehane: Southie mom is Irish mob's worst nightmare in 'Small Mercies'

The mystery novel is set in 1974 when racial tensions are running high just before a busing strategy to integrate schools is to be implemented.

Dennis Lehane's latest mystery, "Small Mercies," went on sale this week. Photo by BYC Photography, courtesy of Harper Collins
Dennis Lehane's latest mystery, "Small Mercies," went on sale this week. Photo by BYC Photography, courtesy of Harper Collins

NEW YORK, April 28 (UPI) -- Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone author Dennis Lehane's latest Boston crime drama, Small Mercies, focuses on a woman with nothing to lose who stands up to the Irish mobsters running her neighborhood.

Set in 1974 South Boston, the novel follows White, working-class and cash-strapped widow Mary Pat Fennessey, whose 17-year-old daughter Jules fails to come home on the same night a Black teenager is struck and killed by a subway train under mysterious circumstances.


Desperate to find her only surviving child -- she earlier lost a son to heroin -- Mary Pat tries to abide by the neighborhood code, which dictates she not involve the police in Jules' disappearance.

The local crime boss and his minions not only fail to help bring Jules home, but they also threaten to kill Mary Pat if she doesn't drop the matter, which is drawing unwanted attention to their nefarious businesses.


"Mary Pat, right from the beginning, her hands are tied," the 57-year-old author told UPI in a recent phone interview.

"When you take someone like that and you give them nothing left to lose, then you have a very dangerous opponent on your hands -- which is what I wanted."

The smart, hot-tempered and relentless character is inspired by the "bruisers" Lehane encountered in his younger years.

"I knew a lot of these women and, as time went on, I started to see the sadness," he said. "They were products of abusive fathers, abusive husbands and they produced tough, abused kids. That's what I wanted to write about."

Hardship and disappointment

Mary Pat is written as a fierce, but damaged, woman who grew up in the low-income housing projects and knew mostly hardship and disappointment.

All she wants is a better life for Jules.

"God help you if you get on the wrong side of her. At the same time, she is a woman who has been victimized her entire life, but then has the sin of victimization on her, as well. She passes along the same sins of racism and reductive thinking to her children," Lehane said of Mary Pat.


Although the book deals with difficult topics, the author's choice to wrap his story with a scene that features two characters of different races sitting down and sharing a drink while mourning their respective losses as the world around them burns is a salute to decency and a ray of light for readers.

"Calliope represents hope. Bobby represents hope. Ken Fen crossed the bridge and got out [of the neighborhood]," Lehane said.

"The enemy in a lot of my books is tribalism, and I understand how tribalism starts. I understand why it's sometimes necessary at the beginning, but once it becomes institutionalized, it's always a bad thing."

Small Mercies is partly Lehane's attempt to make sense of a disturbing scene he saw when he and his father were in the family car and took a wrong turn into violent protests against the busing policy.

Meaning of effigy

"That's when I learned what 'effigy' meant and to see these figures hung on poles and lit on fire was just medieval," Lehane said.

"We were seeing things on the national news, we were seeing graffiti that was 'KKK,' 'Kill all the N-words.' This was common in my neighborhood and other working-class neighborhoods throughout the city and that's a lot to take in when you are nine years old."


The author recalled how his first conscious social and political thought was that it is in the best interest of the ruling class to keep the working class fighting among itself.

"I still feel that's the playbook. There was also this thing of, how do you reconcile good decent people who you know with what this brought out in them -- the level of vitriol, the level of racism?" he said.

Some of the characters in his new book, like people he knew in real life, viewed the busing policy as a rights issue.

"It was, 'How could the wealthy decision-makers, living in their all-White suburbs make a decision that affects the lower-class neighborhoods without a vote?' There were people who felt that way. My father was one of those people. There were those decent people, but then there were people who were virulently racist," he said.

"None of them were racist against you," Lehane added. "The same people patting you on the head and saying, 'Hey, little kid, how are you doing?' were throwing rocks at buses filled with Black school children."

Long-lasting acrimony

That boycott and the acrimony surrounding it lasted 15 years.

"Southie won't go. They raised a generation of kids who didn't go to school, so guess where they ended up? On the streets, on heroin and they ended up working for the Bulger gang and Winter Hill and their lives were not happy. That was a whole generation that got wiped out," the author said.


Even though his books frequently explore important social themes, Lehane said he doesn't want to tell readers what they should learn or take away from them.

"I don't do 'eat your vegetables' fiction. If I want anything from my work, it's for people to recognize humanity in all of its incredible stupidity and paradoxes and heroism and darkness and pettiness," he said. "It's all part of the exact same package and the color of your skin is completely irrelevant to any of it."

Lehane said he didn't take lightly the decision to include racially charged language in Small Mercies.

Authentic portrait

Although some literature is being retroactively censored or banned altogether, he wanted to paint an authentic portrait of a time, place and people.

"You shouldn't be able to hide from this. If you are scrubbing Agatha Christie, I find that offensive," Lehan said. "If she was racist about something, let her be racist about something."

"It's endless. Roald Dahl, we're going to re-do Roald Dahl? When do we go after Hemingway? When do we start going after Flaubert?" he added. "If you want to annotate, put little asterisks in the text, I'll support that."


However, Lehane is adamant that when language is used in historical context, it provides opportunities for contemporary discussion and understanding, and he doesn't believe there is any place in the United States for banning books.

"This is Taliban philosophy. This is Taliban culturalism," Lehane said. "Banning books is un-American on every level."

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