Small Mercies is a tour de force of crime writing, which’ll come as no surprise to those who’ve read Dennis Lehane before.
Set in Boston in 1974, with the public school system on the cusp of desegregation, we’re introduced to Mary Pat Fennessey, a lifetime resident of South Boston, who simmers with rage like everybody else at the prospect of Black kids coming to their schools.
Life hasn’t been kind to Mary Pat. She’s been through two marriages. Her son died after returning from Vietnam. She’s living hand-to-mouth. But she knows her neighbours have her back. In Southie, you’re not just a community—you’re family. Your neighbour is your sister. Your neighbour is your brother.
Mary Pat’s pride and joy is her seventeen-year-old daughter Jules. When she goes missing on the same night a young Black man is murdered, nobody wants to help Mary Pat find her. The message is clear: don’t go looking. Live in ignorance, or don’t live at all. But Jules is all Mary Pat has left. Jules is the reason Mary Pat gets up every morning. So she starts asking questions. And the open arms of her Southie neighbours contort into fists.
The thing is, Mary Pat has been pummelled her whole life. She has lived life hard. She has taken life’s beatings, and always got back up again. And now, with nothing to lose, she is ready to kick back and buck the system that has protected her. Lehane doesn’t pretend her mission is a moral crusade. He never presents Mary Pat as anything more than flawed and bigoted. But above all else, she is a mother who will do anything for her child.
Small Mercies is as good as anything Lehane has ever written, which means it’s one of the best crime novels you’ll read this year, or any year. A deeply complex revenge thriller steeped in the ugly racial tensions of the day, it’s a great place to begin your Dennis Lehane odyssey.