“Have YOU ever noticed that when they need us, they talk about duty, but when we need them, they talk about budgets?” Spoken today, those words could apply to any number of hot-button issues on the country’s mind: war, the notion of service, the collapsing economy. The words, however, emerge from the mouth of a fictional young police officer living in Boston about 90 years ago, about to take part in brutal events that are shaped by and will shape the course of history.
They are fighting words, just a handful of many that form the backbone of Dennis Lehane’s “The Given Day,” his first novel in more than five years and a messy, emotional work of admirable ambition and scope. On the surface, a 700-page epic about the Boston police strike of 1919 seems as much of a curveball as the kind Babe Ruth might have swung and missed at, a head-scratching decision for fans who stubbornly cling to the belief he’ll bring back his beloved but beat-up private eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro for a sixth go-round. But the secret of Lehane’s body of work is how he stretches himself within a tight framework, revisiting key themes over and over in different forms. It is what makes him a standout writer of commercial fiction, regardless of genre guise.
Lehane’s crime novels, series and stand-alone, rely on authority clashes for their visceral power, and there is plenty of the same in “The Given Day.” Danny Coughlin, one side of the novel’s mirrored protagonists, runs into stormy conflict with his police bosses, a young J. Edgar Hoover on the lookout for potential terrorists, and the organized efforts of union enthusiasts -- echoing similar battles Lehane has waged all the way back to 1994’s “A Drink Before the War.” But Danny’s greatest battle of wills is reserved for his father, whose status as decorated police captain creates a large shadow for the younger Coughlin.
The state of their relationship also embodies an ongoing strength and weakness in Lehane’s work, his penchant for dramatic flourishes drawn from centuries past. Echoing Greek tragedy, both “Mystic River” and “Gone, Baby, Gone” brilliantly brought to light how past events doom families, while the serial killer at work in “Darkness, Take My Hand” had a Jacobean-style thirst for blood. And “Shutter Island,” like a cross between Horace Walpole’s Gothic tale “The Castle of Otranto” and Agatha Christie, wraps layers of psychological import around a logic puzzle paying off only in the final pages.
Lehane’s high-risk, high-reward strategy meant his earlier novels veered dangerously close to toppling under the weight of melodrama and coincidence, a fate that similarly threatens “The Given Day.” Danny happens to engage in a brief love affair with a beautiful Sicilian fugitive bomber liable to spout such phrases as “You Americans -- there is no history. There is only now. Now, now, now. I want this now. I want that now.” The novel’s other protagonist, Luther Laurence, a black man from Tulsa, Okla., looking to escape the clutches of his hometown mob boss and reunite with his wife and coming baby, happens to be hired on by the Coughlins and ends up as Danny’s below-stairs confidant and advisor on strike proceedings. And Danny, by virtue of his connections and choices, happens to be at the center of oncoming history, caught up in vividly described machinations and betrayals leading up to a ferocious finale of protest and riots.
The level of coincidence and melodrama is acceptable, however, because Lehane makes them ring true. He’s always had a way with complex love affairs, be it Patrick and Angie, the Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance between Katie and Brendan in “Mystic River” and here with Danny and Irish emigre Nora O’Shea. There’s also a welcome streak of dark humor; it’s much more refined here than the almost slapstick nature of “Sacred” and is especially fraught with tension in this novel’s arresting prologue in which a visiting Babe Ruth instigates a baseball game in which black and white men temporarily overcome their differences -- and foreshadow the strain of hope pulsating throughout the rest of the narrative.
Danny is the guts and Luther is the heart, but the Babe is the novel’s soul, coming to terms with the rebellious and garrulous nature that will eventually make him a star, even as he admits that “the only time he felt anything, outside of the self-pity he felt when very drunk, was when he hit a ball. Not when he pitched it. Not when he caught it. Only when he hit it.” Despite its length and gargantuan scope of emotion and sociological ramifications, “The Given Day” is a smooth read. In that respect, Lehane is as much like contemporaries George Pelecanos and Richard Price as he is like the bygone Boston-based John P. Marquand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who understood the masses could absorb complex thought by turning the pages. “The Given Day” may not pack the devastating wallop of Marquand’s masterwork “Point of No Return,” but it should draw unintended strength from the latter’s title. From here on in, Lehane should proceed as a novelist, without genre boundaries imposed on him. To twist later words by that young police officer quoted in the opening paragraph, Lehane’s destination is where “the people with no nets end up. That place.”
Sarah Weinman writes “Dark Passages,” a mystery and suspense column, at latimes. com/books. She blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com.