Cover image of "Small Mercies," Dennis Lehane's latest crime thriller

Mary Pat Fennessy lives on the wrong side of the tracks. In South Boston, or “Southie” as the locals call it, a heavily Irish American neighborhood marred by crumbling real estate, miles of mean streets, and scores of bars crammed to overflowing. It’s 1974, and a Federal judge who lives in one of the all-white suburbs has just issued an order for the Boston public schools to begin integrating. They’re to bus white kids from Southie to an almost all-Black high school, and Black kids to Mary Pat’s daughter’s local high school. And like all her neighbors, Mary Pat is outraged and is gearing up to protest. Dennis Lehane’s latest crime thriller, Small Mercies, tells her tale, and theirs, as the busing crisis rises to a crescendo over the hot summer months. 

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

A story unfolds in violence in Dennis Lehane’s latest crime thriller

While tension is rising citywide over the desegregation order, two troubling mysteries impinge on Mary Pat Fennessy’s life. A young Black man has lost his life at a “T” (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) station not far from her house. And her seventeen-year-old daughter has gone missing. The police are short of clues on both counts. And even Marty Butler, head of the local Mob, isn’t much help to Mary Pat. Of course, no reader will be surprised to learn that the two events are closely related. But it will take weeks for Mary Pat to knock enough heads around to figure out why. And there will be violence. Lots of it.  

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane (2023) 320 pages ★★★★★

Photo of Boston school desegregation riot in 1974 which took place during the action in Lehane's latest crime thriller
Boston residents scuffled with the police in 1974 in protest of a court-ordered busing program intended to desegregate the public schools. Image: Peter Bregg – Associated Press via New York Times

The Boston school busing crisis

For fourteen years (1974-88), the Boston Public Schools were under court order to desegregate by a system of compulsory busing to achieve racial balance. The Boston School Committee had been required by state law to do so for nine years, since the state legislature had passed the 1965 Racial Imbalance Act. But the committee had consistently refused to follow the law. A federal lawsuit led to the order by US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity in June 1974—and all hell broke loose. The events in Small Mercies take place during the tense months between Garrity’s decision and the days following the opening of the schools in September 1974.

The ethnic roots of the crisis

But the conflict that lies in the background of Dennis Lehane’s latest crime thriller had its roots in ethnicity as well as race. The protagonist, Mary Pat Fennessy, is of Irish ancestry like the overwhelming majority of the people in Southie, where she scrapes out a living. And there was more than a century of conflict between Irish-Americans and Black people that helps explain the intensity of the hatred that shows up in the novel.

The most prominent illustration of that conflict were the Draft Riots in New York and other cities during the Civil War. Then, hundreds of immigrants, mostly Irish, had raged through the neighborhoods of Black freedmen. In New York, at least 119 died, and the property damage in Black neighborhoods was extensive. So, when Mary Pat and her neighbors lash out with such fury, it’s only a reflection of many decades of hostility between Irish and Black Americans.

About the author

Photo of Dennis Lehane, author of Lehane's latest crime thriller
Dennis Lehane in 2010. Image: Wikipedia

According to his author website, 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. 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 HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and the Netflix series, Bloodline. Lehane and his family live in California.”

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