The folks in Southie might not have money, but at least they take care of their own. That’s the code of honor that steadies Mary Pat Fennessy at the beginning of Dennis Lehane’s latest novel, “Small Mercies” (Harper Collins). Bred to be a tough broad by her upbringing in the Irish-American South Boston projects, she’s now trying to raise her teen daughter Jules there as a single mom after two husbands are gone and losing her son to a fatal heroin overdose.

Then one night Jules doesn’t come home. The teen’s friends won’t be honest about what happened. And right about the time Mary Pat’s daughter disappeared, a Black teen was murdered on a nearby subway platform—that young man the son of a coworker at the Catholic nursing home where Mary Pat works. 

Maybe the two things are connected. And it’s the summer of 1974, so maybe it’s all somehow related to racist white Southie’s fury as a federal judge has ordered white South Boston teens to be bused to high school in Black Roxbury, and Black Roxbury teens to Southie high school, to desegregate the city’s schools. And a Whitey Bulger-like Southie mob is helping organize the violent protests (more or less true to what actually happened here).

"Small Mercies" by Dennis Lehane, 2023. (Harper Collins)
“Small Mercies” by Dennis Lehane, 2023. (Harper Collins)

Lehane, who is known for his Boston-set crime novels like his 2001 book “Mystic River,” uses Boston’s civil rights history and the Bulger mob’s true story as backdrop for what’s mostly a Rambo-like revenge fantasy, a page-turner pulp fiction of teeth getting knocked out and gut-shots and blood.

A nice Boston cop is sorta investigating, but the FBI is in bed with the Bulger-like gangsters (more or less what happened here). Mary Pat can’t wait, and she won’t quit. She becomes an avenging angel leading a one-woman vigilante investigation into what really happened to her daughter. Amidst the punching and slashing and shooting and running people over with her middle-aged mom station wagon, she uncovers the sordid truth, she realizes her daughter’s and her own complicity in the community’s virulent racism, and she learns, of course, that the idea that Southie takes care of its own is just one more lie to keep folks in their place and cover up corruption that follows the money all the way to the top.

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Categories: Books