Dennis Lehane’s Small Mercies may take place in Boston’s Southie neighborhood in 1974 — but the topics it deals with are incredibly timely.
At once a crime novel, a deep, unflinching look at racism, and a heart-wrenching story about a mother who has lost everything, this narrative delves into life in the projects at a time when the city of Boston struggled with the desegregation of its public school system — and a lot residents were showing their worst side.
In the sweltering summer of 1974, Mary Pat Fennessy is trying to get by and keep the bill collectors at bay. Mary Pat has lived her entire life in Southie, in Boston’s mostly Irish-American housing projects. Her ex-husband left her, her son overdosed on heroin after returning from Vietnam, and her teenage daughter Jules is running around with a boyfriend Mary Pat hates. One night Jules goes out with her boyfriend and a friend and never comes back home. That same night, a young Black man is found dead on the subway train tracks and no one knows what happened to him.
These two events seem unconnected at first. But as Mary Pat asks around and starts learning about what Jules was up to and where she was the last time anyone saw her, she learns they might actually be linked. Unfortunately, Mary Pat’s desperate search puts her in the crosshairs of Marty Butler, the head of Southie’s Irish mob. Marty doesn’t want the attention Southie is getting because of the manifestations against desegregation, and Mary Pat is making things worse by asking too many questions in her desperate search for her missing daughter. Mary Pat and Marty know each other, so he explains why Mary Pat needs to be a good neighbor and let things go. But there’s no stopping a worried mother from finding out what happened to her daughter, the only thing she had left in this world.
Small Mercies is the story of a desperate mother trying to find her daughter and getting in trouble with the mob in the process, but it’s also much more than that. Set against the tumultuous months of manifestations, constant anger, violence, anti-government sentiment, and rampant racism that marked Boston’s desegregation of its public schools, this novel cuts to the heart of the problem and offers a scathing look at a how race was seen by many Southie residents.
Between the constant racist discourse and endless racial slurs, Small Mercies is a difficult read. However, there are moments in which Mary Pat begins to see how everything she thought she knew about Black people might not be true. It’s not enough to redeem her — there is no redemption here, for anyone — but it’s enough to show readers how sometimes racism was more like an inherited trait rather than a conscious decision.
In many of Lehane’s novels, noir is not only something tied to crime; it’s also something akin to a filter that shows the characters’ realities. Small Mercies is no different. Mary Pat, her sister, and Jules, for example, are all profoundly unhappy because of who they are and how hard they must work to barely stay afloat. Also, the novel inhabits a place in which crime, race, class, and geography are all profoundly interconnected, which makes breaking cycles almost impossible, especially for people who see Southie as the center of the world and have no desire to see, and no respect for, any other place on the map.
This is a novel about grief, poverty, desperation, and the power of the criminals running Southie. However, the main element here is racism, and that makes it a relevant read today because, sadly, some of the discursive elements present in the story are still around. For example, most people in the story are convinced the young Black man who was found dead on the subway was an uneducated drug dealer from a broken family. He wasn’t; he was educated, from a loving family (his mother worked with Mary Pat and considered her a friend), an athlete, and had no criminal record. While some folks see a bit of light, many don’t, and that echoes with some of the behavior and discourse about race we see today.
While this is a timely thriller that carries a lot of emotion, memorable characters, crackling dialogue, and great action, the rampant racism and constant use of racist jokes, comments, and slurs almost overpowers everything else. It’s hard to feel empathy for racist characters — and dark narratives tend to fail in the absence of empathy — so this might be, for some readers, the kind of novel they read and immediately forget about. For others, however, Lehane’s brutal honesty will come across as an attempt to show something ugly he lived through and has now written about as a call to action and an invitation to do better moving forward — instead of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.