Small Mercies and Big Trouble in Lehane's Latest


Small Mercies (2023)

By Dennis Lehane

Harper, 320 pages





I stayed from Dennis Lehane for a time because I was tired of Boston mob novels. I went back after dusting off The Given Day (2008), which is about the 1919 Boston Police Strike. I’m still maxed out on mob tales, but Lehane’s latest has intriguing twists. Small Mercies is set in mobbed-up South Boston, but amidst the Boston busing crisis. Plus, some of the sleazeballs obtain an unlikely enemy in the person of Mary Pat Fennessy.


Small Mercies occurs in 1974, the beginning of a 14-year battle to desegregate Boston’s public schools. Massachusetts enjoys a reputation as a deeply liberal state, but that wasn’t always been the case, and Boston still hasn’t lived down the racism that once bloomed like a corpse plant, especially in “Southie.” It was controlled (in order) by big-time thugs, smaller thugs, the Catholic Church, Irish Americans, compromised cops, a local populace that knew what not to notice, and on-the-level police. It was a tossup if the biggest domestic problem was teenage pregnancy, alcohol abuse, or the “brown scourge” (heroin). But at least it was lily-white and black folk–not called that!–knew to stay away.


Mary Pat goes to mass, but she’s divorced, her Vietnam vet son died from heroin, she smokes like a coal mine fire, and daughter Jules is often AWOL and probably doing some hooking. Mary Pat certainly disapproves of her  boyfriends, but what can she do? She takes some solace in her job at the old folks home and likes “Dreamy” Williamson, a black coworker. Do they really connect, though? Mary Pat doesn’t know that her real name is Calliope or that she and her husband live a far more respectable life than her Southie neighbors. In fact, when Augie Williamson is killed in Southie, it initially doesn’t dawn on Mary Pat that he was Dreamy’s son.


Jules’ disappearance sends Mary Pat on a frantic search. After beating the crap out of a guy she assumed was Jules’ boyfriend, she turns to the head of the Southie mob, Marty Butler–think Whitey Bulger–for help. Because Mary Pat is making too much trouble and noise, Marty promises he’ll investigate. Yeah, sure he will! He just doesn’t want light shone on him or his ‘hood. It’s bad enough a couple of cops he doesn’t own are sniffing around. They get nothing from Mary Pat. That’s not how things are done in Southie.


When Mary Pat learns that Jules was with the son of one of Butler’s lieutenants, Mary Pat is pretty sure that Jules is dead. She’s positive of it when Marty gives her a sack of cash and tells her to go to Florida while he takes care of things. Mary Pat isn’t a 100-watt bulb, but she can read a runaround. She’s so desperate she even pays a visit to her ex, who lives in Cambridge. That might as well be another galaxy for someone like Mary Pat. His new domestic life is equally shocking to her, but not as much as the revelation that Jules might be involved in Augie’s death.

How on earth can Mary Pat find the truth or take on the mob? Her determination put me in mind of the two mothers who crusaded against violence in Northern Ireland. Before long Mary Pat has half of Southie wanting to get rid of her, but she’s surprisingly resourceful. Don’t get too excited; Lehane is all about grit, not the warm fuzzies. One passage sums up the cancerous effects of hate in Vietnam-era Boston: “Call them gooks, call them niggers, call then kikes, micks, wops, or frogs…. You can get kids to cross oceans to kill other kids, or you can get them to stay right here and do the same thing.”


Lehane is an engaging storyteller who seldom pulls punches, which is why he doesn’t shy from rubbing reader faces in hate speech. You will probably be shocked to discover the book’s namesake “small mercy.” Can a tigers change their stripes? It’s tough to do so in a place where even racists divide ideologically–the loudmouthed Louisa Day Hicks makes a few appearances–and “the only law and the only god is money.” So what if Southie is also a dumping ground for all social ills? Vendettas and mobsters have their own logic. Both play their hands in Small Mercies.


Rob Weir






Fat Wallets and Skinny Results: New York Yankees



October is here, but it might as well be midwinter for Yankees. They spent the summer in a battle with the Red Sox to stay out of the basement of the American League East, which is a mighty poor return for a $290 million payroll.


An old adage holds that the Yankees don’t rebuild, they reload. Too bad because they desperately need to rebuild. They are a team of plow horses that don’t get on base very often and when they do, it takes a triple to score someone from first. They simply must rethink their home runs or strikeouts lineup–which would involve eating some salaries–or 2024 won’t be much brighter.


The Yankees need to fire Aaron Boone, a push button manager devoted to fraudulent analytics. He’s little more than a cheerleader for mediocre players. Hensley Meulens would be a good replacement; he speaks Spanish and Japanese, the latter of which might convince Japanese star pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto to ink a New York contract.


They should fire General Manager Brian Cashman as well, but word on the street is that Cashman will be back. They should show no such hesitancy in dumping the entire conditioning and training staff. There’s bad luck and there’s bad practice and New York has mastered the second.


Pruning the dead wood starts with Giancarlo Stanton who is 33, but plays like he’s my age. If they can trade him for prospects, do so, but be prepared to just dump him. Someone will claim him and make the Yankees pay his freight, but he is a roster clogger standing in the way of improvement. Others that need to go include:


·      Frankie Montas—a bad signing who bilked the team

·      Anthony Rizzo—nice guy, but he can’t stay healthy

·      Ben Rortvedt—part of the horrible trade with Minnesota

·      Ron Marinaccio—local guy who had his flukish moment

·      Jake Bauers—he too had his moment, now back to AAA

·      Domingo German—decent pitcher, toxic personality

·      Dump all the just-not-good enough players: Luke Weaver, Francy Cordero, Jimmy Cordero, Billy McKinney, etc.


The decision will be harder on several players. Estevan Florial should be kept. At the worst he’s fourth outfielder, but I think he’s finally coming into his own and they’ll regret it if they let him walk. I’d also consider resigning Luis Severino, which would be cheaper than taking on Yamamoto. Don’t let anyone fool you; pitchers do not come back from Tommy John surgery in 10 months; it takes two years. I’d also sign Keynan Middleton unless his demands are silly. He likes New York and he can eat middle innings. Stay-or-trade on Gleyber Torres? He’s good, but a streaky hitter who hasn’t flashed the leather as projected. If the return haul is good, I’d move him in the theory that right now he’s as good as he’ll ever be.


There are also guys who aren’t trustworthy in their current roles. If it’s me, Clay Holmes does not remain the closer and they sign someone more reliable. Which Carlos Rodon shows up next year? I’d have him on a short leash. If he’s slow out of the gate, move him even if it means taking on some of his salary. Tommy Kahnle should go. Maybe package him with Scott Effros for prospects.


Speaking of prospects, which ones are for real? I put them into the R (real), S (suspect), and P (as in it will take a Prayer) categories:


·      Jasson Dominquez: R Another victim of the Yankees horrible training staff. We won’t see him much next year because he needs Tommy John surgery in his non-throwing arm, but he’s the future.

·      Oswaldo Cabrera: R He’s not a star but he’s a useful snap-in part at third of the outfield.

·      Everson Pereira: R An outfielder that has hit everywhere in the system. One can only hope his early call-up didn’t hurt his confidence or the trainers his body.

·      Johny Brito: R He’s showed he can pitch under pressure and has earned his shot.

·      Ben Rice: R Some say he lacks the quickness to catch or the power to play first. Yeah, and all he has done is knock the cover off the ball at every level.

·      Anthony Volpe: S He’s fast, has occasional power, and is likable, but he’s also a .210 hitter, which isn’t good enough. The Yanks have drafted a lot of shortstops, which tells me they too have doubts.

·      Oswald Peraza: S He hasn’t hit well in the Majors, but he holds promise so the time to trade him or Volpe would be now.

·      Spencer Jones: S Too soon to tell. He’ll either be Aaron Judge Lite or a tall version of Joey Gallo.

·      Randy Vasquez: S He’s pitched well, and he’s pitched like he just got out of American Legion ball.

·      Drew Thorpe, Richard Fitts, Chase Hampton, Will Warren: S All are potentially useful arms, but scouts project all three as mid-rotation hurlers at best.

·      Nick Ramirez: S He looks okay but the sample is small

·      Matt Bowman: P Looks like a classic AAA guy.

·      Greg Weissart: P Just not worth holding on to.

·      Clayton Beeter: P Great arm, but it’s easy to see why the Dodgers dumped him. He’s a thrower, not a pitcher.


Looking for patterns? (1): Bad management and bad training must go. (2) Develop or trade for players who are younger, faster, more versatile, and can get on base. (3) Steer clear of older free agents. (4) Be patient with younger players, but take a hard-nosed approach to sort real talent from roster placeholders. (5) Pay attention to data that matters, like BA, OBP, RBIs, and pitcher Wins and ERA. When they fire Boone, make sure he takes his clip board with him.  


M: Messages for Now from 1931


M  (1931)

Directed by Fritz Lang

Nero-Film AG, 111 minutes, Not rated (But PG-13 despite its subject)

In German with subtitles





Most film fans would probably say that Fritz Lang's surrealistic sci-fi film Metropolis was his masterpiece. It was also sub-rosa commentary on the Weimar Republic. It gets my vote, but Lang felt that his best film was M.


Metropolis, a silent film, debuted in 1927, the same year that talking pictures first came into theaters. M was Lang’s first sound movie, but it did not signal a shift towards soft entertainment. Not with a story involving a serial killer of children. An opening scene signals its macabre subject: a group of girls skipping rope to a grim rhyme. M is a psychological drama about the mind of the perpetrator who makes that rhyme come true.


M rests upon an old conundrum: Is there honor among thieves? We are taken inside Berlin's criminal underworld and among pickpockets, safe crackers, con artists, burglars, and prostitutes. They are not upstanding citizens, but they have a code of honor that holds revulsion for the killing of children. Moreover, a serial killer on the loose means there are more police on the streets, which isn’t ideal for those who operate in the shadows. M becomes a competition between the underworld, the police,  and enraged locals to find the killer. Thus, M is also a palette upon which we find a blind balloon salesman, grieving mothers, civic leaders, and ordinary townspeople, all of whom seek to solve the case. Lang knew something that even today we are loathe to admit: law enforcement is often too detached from the street to develop networks that efficiently solve crimes.


Another theme that emerges in M is don't whistle while you work. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is the killer’s signature tune and eventually leads to his capture. Sounds simple, but it's not. The question lingers of who will capture the killer and what they do with him. Townspeople and mothers yearn to tear him limb from limb. The night watchman in the building where the killer is trapped imagines the glory that would come with apprehension. Police are consumed by strategy. But what if vigilante justice is in the hands of actual vigilantes?


M has one of the most unusual trials in movie history. It involves a group of criminals who pay more attention to legal rights than the rest of society. What could be more unusual than appointing a defense counsel for the man who is ruining their business? M shifts to psychology. Is it possible to feel  sympathy for a monster? Do we all have dark sides we don’t wish to face? Is there a difference between a person driven by his DNA to commit heinous crimes versus lesser crimes? Kleptomania, for example, is viewed as mitigating factor for those compelled to commit it. Today, we characterize drug addiction and alcoholism as diseases. Lang didn’t ask us to think that child murder should be overlooked, but he suggested that society has unbalanced standards by which we judge. In essence, justice isn't really blind; one scornful eye remains open to apply extralegal sanctions.  


This too has relevance for today. Can we really pretend that subjective factors such as social class, race, community outrage, or ethnicity play no role in interpreting motives or sentencing offenders? Honor among thieves? In Lang's movie another code among them is avoiding harm to ordinary citizens; the rich, powerful, and arrogant are fair game. Ever wonder why it is so hard to break organized crime rings? Could it be that they are more integrated into their communities than police or politicians?


The recognizable star in M is Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert. You can understand from this early role why he later surfaced in blockbusters such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. He had an uncanny ability to shift between clever planner, feral caged bird, and misunderstood victim.


The more I think about M, the more I see it as but a small cut below Metropolis. M is an old film and another look at the failures of the Weimar Republic that would soon give way to Naziism. But don’t be put off by subtitles, embedded politics you might not understand, or its grainy black and white stock. M, alas, has too much to say about the world in which we now live.


Rob Weir