A Drink Before the War

My crime fiction book group is doing a series of discussions based on the theme Genre Me to Death.  This month’s crime fiction subgenre:  the private eye.

We began with some of the group reading The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett featuring everyone’s favorite blonde Satan, Sam Spade.  Readers were impressed with the level of writing in this book and liked the plot.  Of course, no discussion of this book is ever complete with talking about the Humphrey Bogart film.  The interesting thing about Spade is that he is neither a good or bad man, able to say about himself, “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.”

The next book up was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep with Philip Marlowe.  While we have a man who has a little larceny in him, the major thing about Marlowe is the charge of misogny which certainly is influence by his tussles with Carmen Sternwood in this novel.  The readers were also impressed with the level of writing in this novel as Chandler is famous for being a talented wordsmith.

In one of those odd facts, Humphrey Bogart also played Philip Marlowe in the filmed verison of The Big Sleep.  Both of these films are so good that they would work well in a novels into film discussion group. 

Those books were our benchmark titles in the private eye field.  Our contemporary example for discussion was Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War.  This novel introduced the private eye team of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro.  The plot involvese a State Senator who hires Kenzie and Gennaro to retrieve some stolen documents.  When it becomes evident that two warring African-American street gangs are also interested, the violence ratchets up and the game is afoot.

One person in the group asked if setting is ever considered a character and that should tell you how much Boston domintes this novel.  The atmosphere is oppressive and it appears that there are no safe streetst to walk down in this version of the town.

Even more challenging for readers to handle, Lehane chooses to use the racial divisions of the city to full capacity.  Readers and discussion leaders should be warned that the N-word is used liberally throughout this novel.  However, one of the central questions we wrestled with at our discussion was whether or not Patrick Kenzie could be labeled a racist. 

Lehane is one of the best crime fiction writers we have today.  As an aside, my favorite book discussion title and my candidate for best crime novel ever is his Mystic River.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

1 Comment on "A Drink Before the War"

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  1. shavers@crc.losrios.edu' Shelley says:

    Of all crime writers, there is something uniquely fascinating about Dash Hammett. It always feels like the novel is just the tip of the iceberg, and that something really literary is going on underneath.

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