I’ve heard people describe “muscular prose” before, but I never really understood it until I read Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War. The first book in a series now numbering six, it’s satisfyingly hard-edged crime fiction with a distinctive voice.
The book, Lehane’s first, dates from 1994 and chronicles the seedy side of South Boston, with gangs and violence an everyday occurrence. There’s humour, but this is no comedy; it tends to be of the unrelentingly black variety. Eighteen years and a hemisphere away, I’m in no position to judge if this is an accurate portrait of the times, but it certainly feels authentic. The prose itself is terse, descriptive, at times poetic but painting a sharp portrait of tough times. If I have a minor complaint, it is that in setting the scene Lehane occasionally gets carried away and has his protagonist phrasing thoughts that are rather too poetic, but as the plot picks up pace this ceases to be a problem.
The narrator, Patrick Kenzie, is a P.I. in the hardboiled tradition. He struggles to pay the rent, probably drinks too much, and has an unrequited crush on his partner, Angie Gennaro. In turn, Gennaro still seems to love her husband, referred to by Kenzie as “The Asshole”, who beats her up on a regular basis. This is one of the things I loved about the book; as in life, human relationships here are seriously complicated. Everyone’s a bit messed up. Even at the end, Lehane avoids tying things up in a neat bow and questions and doubts remain.
The plot itself is tense and satisfying. There is some explosive action as Kenzie and Gennaro go on the run from rival gangs, but the violence never seems exaggerated or cinematic. The “War” of the title erupts, but seems like the kind of thing that could be ripped straight from the newspapers, particularly those of the era.
This is the kind of gritty, well-written, fast-paced book that gives crime fiction a good name. South Boston in the nineties is not a world I’m familiar with, but I enjoyed a visit and I’ll be back for the rest of the books.