Lehane's "The Given Day": Busting heads in Boston
"The Given Day" by Dennis Lehane takes the mystery writer's strengths into historical novel territory — it's a brilliantly realized story of two men set during the aftermath of World War I, including the Boston Police Strike, the Spanish flu, and the Molasses Disaster.
Special to The Seattle Times
Dennis LehaneThe author of "The Given Day" will read at 7 p.m. Oct. 8 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com). Lehane will sign books Oct. 8 at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, call for time (206-587-5737).
"The Given Day"
by Dennis Lehane
Morrow, 704 pp., $27.95
When you start a book with Babe Ruth and other baseball giants playing a pickup game in 1918 — against amateurs who blithely clean the pros' clocks — you'd better be ready to hit one out of the park.
With "The Given Day," Dennis Lehane does just that.
Lehane's brilliantly realized epic focuses on two personal stories set against some milestones of early 20th-century history. These include the aftermath of World War I, the Boston Police Strike, anarchist-backed terrorism, labor organizing and the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic. Even the bizarre Molasses Disaster — 21 dead and 150 injured when a molasses tank explodes and floods a Boston neighborhood — has a part.
A 700-page historical novel may surprise some Lehane fans; he's best known for detective and crime novels (two of which, "Mystic River" and "Gone Baby Gone," were made into excellent movies). But Lehane has always aimed to be a full-service novelist, and this is a bold calling card.
The author brings to "The Given Day" many of the same attributes that make his crime novels stand out: sympathy for the vulnerable, a strong blue-collar ethic and love for Boston's ethnic groups — especially the Irish. And, as with his other work, Lehane shows a gift for expressing the most bittersweet, ironic and tragic of moments.
As the broad events of "The Given Day" pass by, we follow the intersecting lives of two young men, one black and one white: Luther Laurence and Danny Coughlin.
We first see Luther in that impromptu ballgame played on a field somewhere in Ohio. He and the other amateurs are terrific athletes, but they're black and thus barred from professional ball. The subtly tense opening scene, when the black guys realize they won't be allowed to win, creates a theme that resonates throughout the book.
Luther marries and dreams of settling in Greenwood, Okla., at that time a haven for African Americans. But he falls in with a bad bunch and is forced to kill a man. Luther flees to Boston, finds work in the Coughlin family household and befriends Danny. He also rooms with a cultured couple spearheading the Boston chapter of a growing organization called the NAACP.
Meanwhile, Danny — a rising star in the Boston police and the son of a distinguished captain on the force — is recruited into an elite squad chasing anarchist bombers. And he becomes a hero in the horrifying flu epidemic of 1918-19.
Danny is also a leader in the Boston Social Club, an organization that suffices in the absence of a police union. The overwhelmingly Irish cops need a real union: They're paid poorly; are responsible for buying their own uniforms and bullets; and work in filthy, vermin-infested buildings.
When a long-promised raise (deferred during the war) never arrives, the police begin to organize, and Danny is swept into negotiations with established unions. His activism sits badly with a number of higher-ups, and the cop becomes the target of insults and threats.
One of those upset is Danny's father. Danny compounds the trouble by falling for Nora, the Coughlin family's maid — a strong-willed Irishwoman, nearly a member of the family, but with a checkered history. As their relationship deepens, the rift between junior and senior Coughlin grows.
Meanwhile, Luther has his own worries. A crooked but powerful cop uncovers Luther's past. He blackmails the younger man, trying to coerce him into betraying his activist landlords, and Luther must make an agonizing decision.
The story has a huge cast, but even its minor characters are vividly drawn. Some are real-life figures, including G-man J. Edgar Hoover, Gov. Calvin Coolidge, journalist and Bolshevik supporter John Reed, and playwright Eugene O'Neill. Babe Ruth and his reflections on the way of the world weave in and out of the story as a connecting thread.
Steeped in history but wearing its research lightly, "The Given Day" is a meaty, rich, old-fashioned and satisfying tale. I'd call it Lehane's masterpiece, but he's still young and, it is devoutly to be wished, ready to give us much more.
Adam Woog's column on crime fiction
appears on the second Sunday of the
month in The Seattle Times.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.