While it's become hip for highbrow writers to pop out thrillers in their downtime, you don't often see a cool noir master risking his cred with a literary novel. Why chance an embarrassing failure when you've got a moneymaking formula down cold?
And so Dennis Lehane author of the great, dark, endlessly twisting Mystic River deserves credit for even attempting The Given Day, his exhaustively researched and regrettably overstuffed new novel about the 1919 Boston Police strike. Plowing through this 700-page behemoth, you'll be impressed by factual details and entertained by the likes of Babe Ruth. But in the end, the historical backdrop overwhelms Lehane's human-scale fiction.
Danny Coughlin is a stock good guy, the oldest son in a powerful Irish cop family, who is recruited to infiltrate both the policemen's union and a fringe radical group. But Danny is torn between his filial duties and sympathy for the workingman. Meanwhile, in alternating segments, Luther Laurence, a black athlete–turned–petty criminal, crosses a mobster in his Oklahoma hometown and flees to Boston, where he ends up working as a servant in Danny's family home. The two men become friends, united in their distrust of Danny's godfather, a smarmy Irish devil straight out of The Departed.
Lehane gives each of his heroes a sweet love story and some token flaws. But their real job is to turn up, Zelig-like, at epochal historical junctures: Danny is inside the Salutation Street police station when it is bombed by anarchists in 1916; Luther visits families ravaged by the flu epidemic; Danny meets with a creepy, young J. Edgar Hoover; Luther builds an office for the NAACP. In what should be the novel's resounding climax, Danny turns in his badge when the police decide to strike. But the book is so packed with dramatic turning points and noisy confrontations that the strike itself reads like just one more thunderclap in a long storm. Lehane has tried to write a gripping novel and honorably fallen short. He has tried to capture the zeitgeist of an era even nuttier and more tumultuous than our own, and succeeded. B–