A new novel by Dennis Lehane is always reason to rejoice, especially after a six-year absence, and the latest work from Don Winslow and Brendan Slocumb is as welcome as the cherry blossoms in Central Park and the indictment of Donald Trump. All three books are historical, ranging from the 1920s to the 90s, and vibrate with all the excitement and danger of the American cities that define them.
Winslow continues his saga of an Irish-American crime family in City of Dreams, the sequel to last year’s City on Fire, which chronicled the bloody dissolution of the once cordial relationship between the two major crime families of Providence, Rhode Island. In Winslow’s inspired reworking of the Iliad, a gang war tore the Moretti and Murphy families apart, but the Italians prevailed.
Winslow resumes the story in 1991, with former foot soldier Danny Ryan heading up what’s left of the Murphy family. A hijacking gone wrong has sent him on the run with the remainder of the gang to San Diego, where he gets an offer he can’t refuse from a surprising source, and embarks on one last job that will set the Murphy crew up for life.
Flush with cash, they move to Los Angeles, where Danny discovers that a movie called Providence, based on the Moretti-Murphy gang war, is currently in production, and when its financing gets shaky, he takes over. He also falls in love with its troubled star in a high-profile tabloid romance that leaves him dangerously exposed.
Though City of Dreams takes its inspiration from Virgil’s Aeneid, it doesn’t achieve the mythic heights that made City on Fire an instant classic. Maybe it’s intentional, but at times it reads like a film script, with blunt, one-sentence paragraphs that goose the story along without providing much emotional ballast. There’s also a lot of catch-up with events from the previous book, resulting in some unwieldy exposition.
But it’s fun watching Danny’s thugs “consult” on a movie about themselves, and satisfying to witness his transformation into a legitimate power player; all in all, this is an entertaining transition to the third book of the planned trilogy.
Don Winslow continues his saga of an Irish-American crime family in City of Dreams, which resumes the story in 1991 Los Angeles.
Dennis Lehane, who shares common turf with Winslow when it comes to Irish-American gangs, approaches something like Greek tragedy with Small Mercies, which focuses on the primal force of a mother who’s already lost one child and can’t bear to lose another.
Lehane sets the disappearance of single mom Mary Pat Fennessy’s teenage daughter during the controversial attempt to de-segregate the public schools of insular, racist South Boston in late summer of 1974. “Southie” is simmering with heat and outrage over the judicial edict when Jules Fennessy goes missing after a night out with friends.
With little help from the neighborhood, and the police on temporary hold, Mary Pat, who “looks like she came off a conveyor belt for tough Irish broads,” decides to do some investigating herself. One thing she already knows is that at the same time Jules vanished, the son of a Black co-worker at the nursing home where she works was hit and killed by a subway train. Accident or not, it seems likely that there’s some connection between the two incidents.
“Badass” doesn’t begin to describe Mary Pat as she rampages around in places outside the limits set by Southie gangsters, though limits mean nothing to a mother who lost her other child to the drugs they sold him.
Among the stops on her truth-seeking tour are the meetings and demonstrations against student busing fueled by so much vitriol and hate that these sections are painful to read. (In his foreword, Lehane explains that his family accidentally drove into one of these demos when he was a child and he never forgot it.)
Mary Pat grew up with a racist mindset, but her attitude evolves as she learns her daughter’s fate and furiously tries to hold the guilty accountable. Lehane’s book is a searing depiction of what happens when powerful emotional constructs such as maternal rage, racism, and militant isolationism collide and combust, leaving only the most tentative green shoots to poke through the ashes.
The heroine of Brendan Slocumb’s Symphony of Secrets lived during the early 20th century, but she would have recognized the racism that pervaded Lehane’s South Boston. Her story comes to light in the present, when Bern Hendricks, a young music scholar who specializes in the work of the great (and fictional) composer Frederic Delaney, is asked by the Delaney family’s foundation to authenticate a recently discovered version of an opera by the composer.
Dennis Lehane’s Small Mercies sets the disappearance of a single mom’s daughter during the controversial 1974 attempt to de-segregate Boston’s schools.
While working on the project, Bern finds a marking on the score that sets him on the trail of a mysterious woman named Josephine Reed. What he learns will challenge the conventional wisdom about the revered composer and get him in serious trouble with the powerful foundation.
The historical part of the story belongs to the duo of Freddy Delaney, who is, in 1918, a song plugger (meaning he plays songs for customers in order to sell sheet music) for a music publisher, and Josephine Reed, a young Black woman he meets in a jazz club. Her odd manner and the leaves in her hair indicate that she’s homeless, so Freddy invites her to stay at his apartment.
He soon recognizes that she’s a musical genius; the fact that he alone understands this is his greatest gift. They begin a wildly unequal composing partnership which amounts to Freddy claiming Josephine’s music as his own, music that will eventually change the course of modern musical history. It’s a shocking act of appropriation that Josephine is helpless to set right.
I was captivated by Josephine, whose music as described by Slocumb is reminiscent of George Gershwin’s, exuberantly incorporating elements of jazz and blues and inspired by the cacophony of the city. She is probably on the autism spectrum, and processes New York’s noise by turning it into music.
The heroine of Brendan Slocumb’s Symphony of Secrets lived during the early 20th century, but she would have recognized the racism that pervaded Lehane’s South Boston.
Slocumb’s popular debut, The Violin Conspiracy, turns out to be his tuning up for Symphony of Secrets, which is even better. A violinist and music educator, he does a beautiful job building Josephine’s sound world with imagery combining color and emotion, and brings complexity to the relationship between Josephine and Freddy, whose metamorphosis from amiable hack to insatiable fraudster is handled with nuance.
Tom Ripley, everyone’s favorite psychopathic con artist, would have approved of the scale of Freddy’s deception, if not his messy attacks of conscience. In Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground (1970), the second of her five Ripley books, we find him living in a small French village and financing his luxe lifestyle partly by art fraud, commissioning an obscure living painter to create new work in the style of a painter named Derwatt, who died in obscurity several years earlier. A painting by the faux Derwatt—actually Bernard Tufts, a friend of Derwatt’s—fetches the highest prices in Europe.
So when this smoothly humming project is threatened by an American collector who suspects that one of his Derwatts is a fake, Ripley’s solution is to reassure him by impersonating the artist, who has supposedly been living as a recluse in Mexico.
As usual, things tend to go badly for anyone who threatens Ripley’s status quo. If more people have to die, so be it. For Ripley, it’s the price he pays for his brand of high-end contentment, and not a terribly dear one at that.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City