DENNIS LEHANE – A Drink Before the War. Patrick Kenzie & Angie Gennaro #1. Harcourt & Brace, hardcover, 1994. HarperTorch, paperback, July 1996. Reprinted several times since.

   This is a first novel. Lehane was born and raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and still lives in the Boston area. He has worked as a teacher of writing and a counselor of abused children, and that’s all we know about him.

   Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are private detectives who are natives of Boston’s blue-collar Dorchester section, and still live there. The case that will change their lives starts simply enough: according to a prominent local politician, a black cleaning woman has stolen some important Statehouse documents from his office. He wants her found, and he wants them back.

   Finding the woman isn’t that difficult; that’s their profession. Finding the “documents” and staying alive are two other stories entirely. The crime leads to other crimes, everybody’s a victim, and Boston’s ghettos threaten to erupt into an apocalyptic gang war — with our intrepid stalkers in the middle of it.

   Well, hell. I thought I has my choice for Best First Novel of 1994 locked in months ago, with Mallory’s Oracle. Now along comes Lehane with A Drink Before the War, and all of a sudden the short list has grown by one, and I have to at least think about re-opening the polls.

   This is a powerful story and a superbly written one. It doesn’t break any new ground in the private detective patch, and the plot is a little more cowboy than I usually like, but my goodness it’s well done.

   Lehane does everything well, but what he does best are characters and prose. Kenzie and Gennaro are beautifully crafted protagonists. They have depth, and they come alive on the page. The book’s other characters are equally well crafted, though in less depth, with not a false note struck among them.

   It’s all done with some of the best prose I’ve read this year. It’s not lyrical, but it’s witty, strong, and evocative. The dialogue rings true, and Lehane brings the meaner, seedier part of Boston into the living room of your mind. The book is about damaged people and a damaged society, and who does what to whom, and how, and why.

   It’s bloody, and it’s hard, and I think it’ll stay with you a while. What it is more than anything else is good; astonishingly so for a first novelist, and I can’t wait for the encore, If this doesn’t win a First Novel Shamus the PWA will lose what little credibility they have with me.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #17, January 1995.

[UPDATE.]   A Drink Before the War was not nominated for an Edgar, but as Barry suggested it should, it did win a Shamus from the PWA as Best First Novel for the year 1994.

      The Patrick Kenzie & Angie Gennaro series —

A Drink Before the War (1994)
Darkness, Take My Hand (1996)
Sacred (1997)
Gone, Baby, Gone (1998)
Prayers For Rain (1999)
Moonlight Mile (2010)