Aug 25, 12
Read in August, 2012
In Patrick Kenzie, Lehane has come the closest we've seen to creating a modern-day Phillip Marlowe. Yeah, that's high praise but Lehane's story has all the traits that make Chandler's work so inviting--a hard-boiled detective lead, a tremendous sense of place and (most importantly) a great voice as a narrator.
Of course, there are differences, Lehane is no mere Chandler knock off. Kenzie is younger than Marlow, the place is Boston etc, but the wit and voice and world-weary musings on human nature come from the same place. The result is a fresh update on a classic formula, one that does far more than enough to rise above knockoff status.
The plot is well-constructed; Kenzie and partner Angie Genarro are hired to find a Massachusetts state house maid who has absconded with some documents that certain politicians wish to locate and reclaim. From there, the detectives are drawn quickly into a web of gang wars and perversion. Although this is nothing especially unique for this type of novel, Lehane paces things well and the mystery is compelling enough to be a first rate page turner. The real star is Lehane himself. His Kenzie is a great narrator with a distinct voice and enough honesty to avoid painting himself as some sort of hero above the fray. Through Kenzie's eyes, Lehane is able to explore a wide range of human traits and tendencies as well as provide a street-level tour guide through Boston's socio-political landscape. He does all this with a biting, self-deprecating sense of humor laced with wild flights of understatement that invite (and stand up to) the inevitable Marlowe comparisons.
I read "Shutter Island" a few years ago and have to admit, wasn't especially smitten with it. A Drink Before the War is, for me, a much better testament to the high praise Lehane's work has garnered. It transcends genre in a way that places it at the very top of American crime fiction.