The Drop was originally a stunning short story, called 'Animal Rescue', which was the best story in the 2007 anthology Boston Noir. Dennis Lehane has expanded it into a short novel, and also written the screenplay for a film which has just opened in the US and will come to the UK as part of the London Film Festival. I suspect the screenplay may have preceeded the longer prose version, but I could be wrong. If you listened to this week's Americarnage podcast you heard me recommend it to our audience (if you didn't, you can take in the full hour of sports and arts mix here; if you do note that I was wrong in my guess about the cast; I checked afterwards and James Gandolfini plays Cousin Marv, which in retrospect is perfect casting) because this is a finely crafted piece of exceptional writing.
The Drop is the story of Bob Saginowski, a quiet bartender living a life of quiet loneliness until he rescues a beaten dog and takes it home. There's more to Bob than meets the eye—he's a steady presence Cousin Marv's bar; Marv actually is his cousin, but the bar is no longer his. It's owned by Chechen gangsters, who use it periodically but irregularly as a drop for their day's illegal profits. Marv is bitter about his fate; Bob seems resigned to his. The dog begins to change all that. But with him comes a woman, another battered soul named Nadia, and eventually with her comes a sleazy ex-convict, Eric Deeds, who's supposed to have murdered a local character called Richie Whalen, also known as 'Glory Days', one night when he left Cousin Marv's.
Dennis Lehane's writing took a great leap forward from his Kenzie and Gennaro series of detective novels with his first stand-alone, Mystic River, which he followed with Shutter Island, a smaller novel whose writing is tightly controlled in the service of a remarkable exercise in the ambiguity of psychological gothic horror. He wrote on The Wire, and his next two books were larger, historical pieces, The Given Day being the more ambitious of the two (you can read my Given Day interview with Lehane here) and then made a return to Kenzie and Gennaro a decade on.
Two things make this novel another step forward. First is the way, even within a shorter framework, Lehane layers his story. There is a cop, stuck in a dead-end within the force, who's investigating a robbery at Uncle Marv's, and whose senses tell him other secrets lie hidden. He attends mass at the same church as Bob, and has noticed Bob never takes communion; the church itself is being sold off by the diocese; it's community has disappeared.
Everything reflects, everything connects. It's all personal, the story is driven by human needs and human reactions. But the story is made memorable by the writing. At one point, the Chechen boss comes into Marv's, and we start to see glimmers of Bob's character as he, unbidden, reaches to the top shelf and pours a glass of Midleton Irish whiskey for Chovko while telling Marv to fetch a bottle of Stella Artois for his muscle, called Anwar. There's some tension around the return of money stolen from the bar, money left in bag with a severed hand included. Bob has cleaned, literally laundered, the dirty cash. Not confident in his position, he serves Chovko.
Chovka considered the drink Bob had placed in front of him. 'This isn't what you gave me last time'.
Bob said,'That was the Bowmore 18. You thought it tasted like cognac. I think you'll like this more'.
Chovka held the glass up to the light. He sniffed it. Looked at Bob. He put the glass to his lips and took a sip. He placed the glass on the bar. 'We die'.
''Scuse me?' Bob said.
'All of us,' Chovka said. 'We die. So many different ways this happens. Anwar, did you know your grandfather?'
Anwar drank half his Stella in one gulp. 'No. He's dead long time.'
'Bob,' Chovka said, 'is your grandfather still alive? Either of them?'
'But they lived full lives?'
'One died in his late thirties,' Bob said, 'the other made it into his sixties.'
'But they lived on this earth. They fucked and fought and made babies. They thought THEIR day was THE day, the last word. And then they died. Because we die.' He took another sip of his drink and repeated, 'We die,' in a soft whisper. 'But before you do?' He turned on the stool and handed Anwar the glass. 'You gotta try this fucking whiskey, man.'
I don't often quote a passage, but that is some writing: perfectly paced, with the right tone and resonance. It's reflective, it's telling, and it breaks the very mood it sets. The book is filled with writing like this. I say this with some hesitance, and not just because it's Boston, but The Drop might be the closest thing I've read to the quality on honesty in writing which mirrors honesty in character, the quality that made The Friends Of Eddie Coyle so special. That means it's among the best Boston writing ever, and more important, among the best crime fiction too.
The Drop by Dennis Lehane
Abacus £7.99 ISBN 9780349140728