Prayers for Rain
Published by William Morrow and Company
288 pages, 1999
Fall from Grace
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
There are many things to admire about Dennis Lehane's crime fiction. One is how quickly he brings you to the edge of your seat. Another is how he keeps you there, barely aware of the pages turning or the hours going by.
Prayers for Rain, Lehane's fifth book about private investigator Patrick Kenzie, is his sharpest yet. The series (begun in 1994 with A Drink Before the War) is set in contemporary Boston, a gleaming city of commerce, academia and high tech built atop a Byzantine infrastructure of tough ethnic loyalties and shady political deals. It's a city that still loves the brave of heart and the quick of wit. Kenzie is its perfect P.I.: The son of a fireman, reared in Dorchester (once part of the heart of Boston's Irish community), he works with a small cadre of friends from the old neighborhood. Kenzie's partner, Angie Gennaro, is the niece of a New York mob boss -- savvy, tough, and only recently disentangled from an abusive marriage. His hit man, Bubba Rogowski, an idiot savant of martial arts and weaponry, lives in an industrial loft he has cunningly mined against intruders. In classic P.I. fashion, this eccentric team always manages to outsmart and piss off the Boston cops.
Prayers for Rain begins on an odd note. Kenzie is working solo; Gennaro has left their partnership for employment at a large investigative firm, moving out of Dorchester and turning her back on a possible personal relationship with Kenzie.
A young woman has leapt to her death from Boston's landmark Custom House tower, and Kenzie is shocked to hear that she is one of his former clients, Karen Nichols. A dressed-for-success career woman, Nichols had hired him several months earlier to scare off a stalker she had attracted at her fitness club. An unpleasant visit from Kenzie and Bubba had apparently been enough to deter the stalker, Cody Falk, an upscale predator with a long history of restraining orders.
But news of Nichols' suicide leads Kenzie to recall, with some guilt, a loose end from her case. Several weeks after he'd confronted the stalker, Nichols had left a message on his answering machine -- and he had neglected to return her call.
Stung by his former client's death, Kenzie makes a quick investigation and finds that at the time of her call, Nichols had been experiencing a suspicious run of bad luck. Her fiancé had been hit by a car and later died of the injuries; she had lost her job while caring for him; and, according to the police, the pert young client Kenzie recalled as "someone who would iron her socks" had become a strung-out prostitute working from a cheap motel. When Kenzie once again questions Falk, he discovers that the stalker had received several notes, purporting to be from Karen Nichols herself, inviting him to continue pursuing her. Horrified and fascinated, Kenzie embarks on the search for a vindictive mastermind who manipulated Falk and others in a complex scheme to destroy Nichols' life.
While many detective novelists lapse into clichés when they enter thriller territory, Lehane accelerates to peak form. Prayers for Rain makes the dramatic shift from detective novel to horror story in the deceptively charming setting of a sidewalk café. During a lunch with his former lover, attorney Vanessa Moore, Kenzie has a surly exchange with a sandy-haired man who persists in trying to borrow a chair from their table. Minutes later, after Moore has left in a huff, Kenzie gets a call on his cel phone from the man he suspects drove Nichols to her death -- and realizes it is the same man who attempted to take the chair. The caller seems to know every detail about Kenzie's lunch table conversation and disagreement with Moore:
I stood, looked as far up and down the street as I could.
Kenzie sets off from the café on foot in hopes of spotting the sandy-haired man. Within minutes the man calls back and begins to taunt him. There are fleeting, maddening glimpses of Kenzie's quarry (or is it his pursuer?) at the end of an alley or across several lanes of traffic. At one point during this chase, Kenzie dashes into the street and is nearly run over by a car, echoing the suspicious "accident" that killed Nichols' fiancé.
I prefer mysteries over thrillers, but nevertheless admire the way that Lehane combines the best of both worlds -- the depth and detail of a well-crafted mystery with the speed and shock of a brash thriller.
Plus, Lehane is funny. Midway through the book, Kenzie and Bubba are summoned to the home of Boston organized-crime leader Stevie Zambuca and arrive to find themselves in the middle of a suburban brunch, mob-style. The capo's split-level house features ankle-deep white shag carpeting, red silk wallpaper, and framed photos of Italian Americans from John Travolta to Vince Lombardi -- and Elvis. Kenzie muses: "I guess with the dark hair and the questionable taste in clothing, the King was an honorary goomba, kind of guy you could've trusted to do a hit and keep his mouth shut, make you a nice sausage-and-peppers hoagie afterward."
Less than thrilled to find Irishman Kenzie in her living room, Zambuca's tanned and tucked wife waves the men outside to the grill. "She turned away from us and almost ignited sixteen pounds of another woman's hair with her cigarette before the woman saw it coming and leaned back," Kenzie observes. This episode really starts to sizzle, though, when Zambuca puts down his spatula and gets to the point of their meeting. He's going to have Bubba and Kenzie rubbed out if they continue to track the person responsible for Nichols' downfall and death:
"If I hear you're bothering this independent contractor friend of mine? Making inquiries? Mentioning his name to people? I hear any of that, and I'll whack out your buddy. I'll cut his fucking head off and mail it to you. And then I'll kill you, Kenzie." He patted my shoulder several times. "We clear?"
To Kenzie's relief, and to the delight of readers of previous books in the series, this is the point at which Angie Gennaro returns. She invokes her family mob connections to trump Zambuca, then leaves her agency job to rejoin Kenzie and help him find Nichols' killer.
To my mind, Lehane's books lack the philosophical and moral depth that writers such as Michael Connelly bring to the mystery/thriller genre, but he makes up for it with the highly charged partnership of Kenzie and Gennaro. Angie Gennaro is one of the most genuine and down-to-earth female detectives in modern crime fiction -- a woman who still attends Sunday Mass; who can stride through the lobby of the posh Park Plaza Hotel in a grubby tank top and running shorts; who can calmly take surveillance photos while pretending to check under the hood of her "stalled" car on an expressway; and who collapses in a fit of delighted giggling after she and Kenzie uncover Bubba's unexpected romance. It's easy to believe that Kenzie, through whose eyes we see Gennaro, is deeply in love -- but also easy to understand that a lot stands in the way of a happy ending for this pair, both of them scarred literally and figuratively by rough living.
In Prayers for Rain, Gennaro is the voice of reason, trying to keep the lone ranger in Kenzie -- as well as the thriller writer in Lehane -- from going over the brink.
"Patrick, don't let him in your head. He wants that," she warns when Kenzie suspects that what he thought was their stakeout for the killer may instead be a trap set for them.
But by that point, it's too late. The shadowy killer is in our heads as well as in Kenzie's, and we're following Kenzie to the bitter end. Or endings. Being a thriller, Prayers for Rain has the requisite Armageddon-style climax. Being a detective story as well, it also has a postscript-like final chapter that ties it all up with a nasty little shock of its own. And, being a Lehane novel, the whole damn thing is gripping. | June 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON grew up in the Boston area and attended journalism school at Boston University. She considers reading a Dennis Lehane novel to be as good as seeing the Red Sox at Fenway or eating cannoli at Stella's in the North End.
Read Karen Anderson's interview with Dennis Lehane.