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Small Mercies: Book summary and reviews of Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane

Small Mercies

A Novel

by Dennis Lehane

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane X
Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane
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  • Published Apr 2023
    320 pages
    Genre: Thrillers

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Book Summary

The acclaimed New York Times bestselling writer returns with a masterpiece to rival Mystic River—an all-consuming tale of revenge, family love, festering hate, and insidious power, set against one of the most tumultuous episodes in Boston's history.

In the summer of 1974 a heatwave blankets Boston and Mary Pat Fennessey is trying to stay one step ahead of the bill collectors. Mary Pat has lived her entire life in the housing projects of "Southie," the Irish American enclave that stubbornly adheres to old tradition and stands proudly apart.

One night Mary Pat's teenage daughter Jules stays out late and doesn't come home. That same evening, a young Black man is found dead, struck by a subway train under mysterious circumstances.

The two events seem unconnected. But Mary Pat, propelled by a desperate search for her missing daughter, begins turning over stones best left untouched—asking questions that bother Marty Butler, chieftain of the Irish mob, and the men who work for him, men who don't take kindly to any threat to their business.

Set against the hot, tumultuous months when the city's desegregation of its public schools exploded in violence, Small Mercies is a superb thriller, a brutal depiction of criminality and power, and an unflinching portrait of the dark heart of American racism. It is a mesmerizing and wrenching work that only Dennis Lehane could write.

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Media Reviews

"This taut, gripping mystery is also a novel of soul-searching, for the author and reader alike." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Powerful, unforgettable…[a] remarkable novel about racism, violence, and parental vengeance." —Library Journal (starred review)

"Small Mercies is thought provoking, engaging, enraging, and can't-put-it-down entertainment." —Stephen King

"Small Mercies is a jaw-dropping thriller, set in the fury of Boston's 1974 school-desegregation crisis, and propelled by a hell-bent woman who's impossible to ignore. Thought-provoking and heart-thumping, it's a resonant, unflinching story written by a novelist who is simply one of the best around." —Gillian Flynn

"Dennis Lehane is a supernova and this is a novel that will throw your entire goddamn solar system out of alignment. Lehane has gone from strength to strength but never has he been more truthful, more heartbreaking, more essential. In the midst of our racial nightmare Small Mercies asks some of the only questions that matter: 'What's gonna change? When's it gonna change? Where's it gonna change? How's it gonna change?' This book is impossible to put down and its dark radiances will stay with you a long, long time." —Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of This Is How You Lose Her

"Dennis Lehane peels back the layers of his characters like a sculptor finding the face of an angel in a block of stone. By a true master at the top of his game, Small Mercies is vintage Lehane. Beautiful, brutal, lyrical and blisteringly honest. Not to be missed." —S.A. Cosby, bestselling author of Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland

"Beautiful. I was blown away by how Dennis Lehane was able to bring such a deeply unfamiliar world into my heart. Small Mercies is hilarious and heartbreaking, infuriating and unforgettable." —Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award winning author

"Without flinching, Dennis Lehane shines a lantern on a dark story, one the reader will not forget." —James Lee Burke

This information about Small Mercies was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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Here is some of the best character-driven fiction I have ever read
Here is some of the best character-driven fiction I have ever read. Now at the end of 2023, I may be changing my choice for "best of the year" to Dennis Lehane's SMALL MERCIES.

Background: the summer of 1974 in the housing projects of (Lehane's favorite) Boston, Southie to be exact. Everyone's upset about the new bussing plan, that many Irish Americans will be forced to go to schools in black neighborhoods and that many blacks will be forced into schools in their neighborhoods. This background is true.

The story: Mary Pat Fennessy's 17-year-old daughter, Jules, goes missing after meeting with friends one evening. So Mary Pat looks for her, and she's not afraid of anyone. As time goes by and we learn along with Mary Pat what has probably become of Jules, we see how tough Mary Pat can be. And she's just beginning.

During her search, Mary Pat learns of the death, maybe accidental, maybe not, of her black coworker's 20-year-old son. Little by little, she hears about Jules' possible involvement.

Working this case of possible murder is Homicide Detective "Bobby" Coyne. Separately, he and Mary Pat both come to know what really happened. They each are examples of a parent's love for their child. And she is an example of a mother's vengeance.

SMALL MERCIES is great character-driven fiction in part because it also has plot. Plus, I've read few authors who can write a character-driven story as well as Dennis Lehane.


very highly recommended, brutal crime thriller
Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane is a very highly recommended, brutal crime thriller set in 1974 Boston during a time of racial tension over school busing. Another excellent novel that is now on my list of the best novels of the year.

Mary Pat Fennessey lives in the projects of the Irish American section of Boston called “Southie.” It's 1974 during a time of social unrest after the courts have ordered busing to desegregate schools. Mary Pat isn't as concerned over that as much as she is over the fact that Jules, her seventeen-year-old daughter, hasn't come home after a night out with friends. As she begins asking questions and searching for her daughter, she learns that a young Black man is found dead after apparently being struck by a subway train. As Mary Pat begins to ask questions, Jules friends claim she was walking home around Midnight, but it also is clear that they are hiding something. What follows is a story of a mother's revenge, violence, Irish mobs, and hate.

As a tough as nails Southie, Mary Pat was raised to fight back. She uses all her instinctive intelligence, building maternal rage, and street fighting instincts while looking for Jules and extracting revenge against those involved. She is not a likable character, but she is portrayed as a fully realized complicated person who has nothing left to lose. She already lost her son to heroin. All she had left was her daughter and she will risk everything for the answers she seeks.

Homicide officer Bobby Coyne is on the case, but his investigation reaches a stand-still. Then, after Mary Pat takes matters into her own hands, he can only stand back and follow the results of her action. During this same time, tensions are rising and it appears violence might break out in the neighborhood over the integration of their schools.

Small Mercies is a gripping, realistic, and complex novel that is filled with tension and violence in a realistic setting. The pace is fast and many of the details are tragic. As expected from all Lehane novels, the writing is excellent. It is impossible to put Small Mercies down once you start it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins via Edelweiss.

Ali Karim

Far From the Fields of Athenry
The latest novel from Dennis Lehane arrives unexpectedly.

Therefore, receiving Small Mercies comes as a shock, but what a shock. I postulate that this is his most vibrant work, a truly exciting, engaging and enraging narrative. There is an echo of Mystic River, the beautiful though dark novel that was shortlisted in 2010, as the greatest crime-novel of the decade via Deadly Pleasures Magazine’s Barry Award narrowly missing out to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at Bouchercon San Francisco.

Small Mercies like Mystic River is a historical crime thriller set in the Irish working-class neighborhood of South Boston. The backdrop is the desegregation of the public school system by busing high school students from poor Black Neighborhoods, into poor White Neighborhoods, and vice versa. It should be noted that this desegregation initiative was restricted to the public school system, not the affluent neighborhoods where privately funded education was the norm.

The story is propelled by the vividly realized character of Mary Pat, a tough middle-aged single working-class Irish Woman.

Widowed: her former husband ‘Dukie’ was a small-time burglar connected to the local Mob Boss, Marty Butler.

Separated: her second husband Kenny Fey left her because he could no longer tolerate ‘the hate’.

Devastated: she lost her son Noel, an ex-Vietnam GI who died tragically from a Drug Overdose.

And finally, there’s Jules: Her teenage daughter about to find herself in a former all-White High School, where half the student body will be bused out to a Black High School – and taking their place will come Black Pupils.

When Mary Pat finds herself involved in the protest movement against the desegregation / busing initiative, her beloved daughter Jules vanishes. The disappearance coincides with the death of Auggie Augustus Williamson - a black youth, at a train station on the white-side of town.

As Mary Pat grows more anxious about her missing daughter, the local mobster Marty Butler and his henchmen at the pub The Fields of Athenry agree to help her. But before you can mutter ‘Gone, Baby, Gone’, their assistance takes on another meaning, perhaps a differing significance.

A tangled web of tribalism, ignorance and a sense of belonging and community take on a darker edge – one of fear that transforms into unbridled hate. An underground ‘Black Power’ liberation group is acquiring weapons, as dividing lines separate communities by skin colour. Each of these communities are equally poor, and controlled equally by the wealthy and the criminal – where money and power overlook skin colour.

Lehane’s ear for dialogue and emotion is incisive so all the characters come alive by deft turns of phrase and mannerism. There is wit that keeps the novel’s dark tragedy and violence from overpowering the reader.

Historical detail is realised with an uncommon vibrancy. Clipped short chapters are not written but carved, so there is not one superfluous word. Lehane has considered every sentence, so apart from the thrilling and urgency of the propulsive narrative – the reader is prompted unconsciously into deep thought. The reader’s own moral compass is tested, almost as if the ink that stains the words has been magnetised. Despite the dilemmas facing the characters and readers, this highly literate novel is as fast paced as ricocheting bullets off concrete.

The dénouement is staggering, for the reader is bereft when the pages run out, for the story continues in the mind – remaining like an echo, the ranting of an inmate from sHuTteR iSlaNd.

This is Dennis Lehane at the height of his writing powers; for to miss this novel would be unforgivable.

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Author Information

Dennis Lehane Author Biography

Photo: Ashleigh-Faye

Dennis Lehane grew up in Boston. Since his first novel, A Drink Before the War, won the Shamus Award, he has published thirteen more novels that have been translated into more than 30 languages and become international bestsellers: Darkness, Take My Hand; Sacred; Gone, Baby, Gone; Prayers for Rain; Mystic River; Shutter Island; The Given Day; Moonlight Mile; Live by Night; World Gone By; Since We Fell, and Small Mercies.

Four of his novels – Live by Night, Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, and Shutter Island – have been adapted into films. A fifth, The Drop, was adapted by Lehane himself into a film starring Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, and James Gandolfini in his final role. Lehane was a staff writer on the acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, and also worked as a writer-producer on ...

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