I originally reviewed A Drink Before the War on November 22nd, 2006.
The job is a simple one; their clients want them to locate a missing employee who may have taken some important documents. They are to find the missing woman and tell the client her location. They actually accomplish this pretty easily and early on. But the clients are two of Boston’s biggest and most influential politicians. The missing employee is no mere cleaning lady. The missing documents are oh so much more then they appear to be at first. The missing employee quickly becomes the lynchpin that threatens to bring the city perilously close to blowing apart.
A Drink Before the War introduces the characters and some of the themes that will continue to weave throughout the series but are presented here in a more obvious fashion. Southie is a poor, white, blue collar neighborhood. As a whole there is a strong resentment towards groups in a position of power (politicians) and groups that are perceived as the opposition (black neighborhoods). More so then other genres the modern crime novel when in the right hands is at its heart a social novel and all of these socio-economic problems will be explored throughout the book. Some times they are dealt with a bit heavy-handedly, but there are good points and interesting observations that are made. There’s a reason that Lehane is grouped with writers such as George Pelecanos, David Simon and Richard Price.
Patrick himself will directly confront the issue of race on more then one occasion as the story progresses. Some of the more passionate discussions on race are had with his long time friend, a black columnist for the local paper. Both sides effectively argue their positions on the issue of race making good points but Lehane is a smart enough of a writer to know that a heated discussion over a couple of pages wont solve the issue or present any viable solutions and just lets it stand as is.
Patrick also has a stronger anti-authoritarian attitude towards the politicians then most because he also has deep seated issues with his father. His father was a hero firefighter who went into politics after retirement. Patrick’s father also beat him savagely behind the facade of a happy family. This is important because it becomes a psychological cross that he bears throughout the entire series and also becomes the impetus for Patrick’s desire to see children protected at all costs and to carry out justice against those who harm them. Patrick also seems to have inherited his fathers temper and propensity for violence, though it never manifests itself in those relationships that are closest to him, tempering it with a strong acknowledgment of who he can become. His father’s ghost haunts him always.
In a later novel Lehane postulates that in poor neighborhoods once a generation or so, a girl comes along with such striking beauty and fierce intelligence that everyone knows she is destined to leave and never come back. He then goes on to tell us that Angie herself was just such a girl, except she never left. She has know Patrick since they were kids and they have been friends for most of that time. Her husband, Phil, was once Patrick’s best friend and they were as close as brothers. Phil though has become an unemployed, alcoholic who physically beats his wife and has done so for years. Ange over the course of the series will become one of the most complex female characters to ever grace fictions pages. In A Drink Before the War she presents a clear and sober eyed picture of a woman in a doomed relationship but still loving the man whom she married. Which in and of itself is just one facet of her personality. The need for a change in her life is starting to itch her subconsciously. Everyone knows what Phil does to her and they all hate him for it, none more so then Patrick. There is a long line of people waiting for the day that they divorce, because on that day Phil will become the most hunted man in town, but for now, whether he knows it or not, he lives under Angie’s protection. Angie too has her own crosses to bear. She is a complex counter part to Patrick and his sometimes self destructive personality.
If the line to beat Phil has Patrick at its head then the line to kill him has Bubba at its head. Bubba is another lifelong friend from the neighborhood who was in the military and fought in Beirut in the 80’s. He is now is a gun runner, is ultra violent with almost psychotic tendencies. He is fiercely loyal to Patrick and Angie. For this novel Bubba seems mainly to act as a deus es machina, guarding Patrick’s and Angie’s butts when things get thick, but he will be further developed in later novels. As has been pointed out elsewhere he is right out of a long line of deadly sidekicks that the PI always seems to have around.
Now, the one sub-plot that I’ve avoided mentioning so far is the relationship between Angie and Patrick. You know as soon as you meet them that you like them as you slide effortlessly into their banter with each other. The attraction between the two of them permeates the entire novel and even the entire series. Though there is the underlying question of will they or won’t they Patrick and Angie’s relationship never devolves into a Hart to Hart or David and Maddy paring. But Patrick’s affection and devotion to her is always evident and the sexual tension between them practically jumps off the page.
Lehane has many strengths but the trait that he is perhaps most known for is his ability to craft fully realized, in depth, real, three dimensional characters. Indeed the series as a whole reads as a 5 volume character study of Patrick and Angie where some cases happen to get solved along the way.