Book Club

7 takeaways from Book Club’s author talk with Dennis Lehane

"It doesn't matter where I am. I carry Boston with me."

Dennis Lehane joined to discuss "Small Mercies." Gaby Gerster / Diogenes, Zuric

Growing up working class in Boston, Dennis Lehane is familiar with the ways poverty can grind people down. But even in the midst of daily struggle, people find ways to hope. His new novel, “Small Mercies,” is peppered with those little moments.

“The idea is, if you’re working class you’re just not much good in your life…So if you get a good laugh, a gust of love, [or] your team wins a championship, those are small mercies. That’s what you hope for,” he said at a recent Book Club event.

The new crime thriller is true to life in South Boston during the summer of 1974, which means it is also unflinchingly honest about the racism that upended neighborhoods during the busing crisis. In the novel, Lehane tackles the racism he saw as a child through the story of Mary Pat, a mother who takes on the Irish mob in search of her missing daughter.


“What you saw coming out of South Boston was a Boston problem, not a Southie problem and now it’s it’s a global problem,” he said. “It’s one of the oldest playbooks in the world, which is when the world shifts…in demographics and culture, what happens is the very first thing you do is you blame another culture.”

Lehane is the prolific writer of more than a dozen books and a screenwriter whose written for “The Wire,” among other projects. He has many fans among the audience, who’ve said few authors combine “the brutality and the beauty of the human experience” quite like Lehane. recently hosted a discussion with Lehane and Serena Longo of Harvard Book Store about his latest novel. The two discussed what it was like to write his first novel in four years, how he confronted the racism he grew up around, and what it means to be a Boston writer even after leaving the city.

Read on for takeaways from their discussion or watch the video below and sign up for more Book Club updates.

Lehane’s real-life experience with a racist mob in Boston partially inspired him to write “Small Mercies.”

Lehane was nine years old when the busing crisis reached a boiling point in Boston and experienced the racist violence firsthand. He and his father got stuck on the Broadway Bridge as a crowd of protestors hung effigies, threw rocks, and chanted racist slurs. Decades later, he recalled the moment when his own daughter turned nine.


“I was nine and it was medieval and terrifying,” he said. “I started to really identify with what it must have been like for me to look at that world to a nine-year-old’s eyes. And that’s probably what inspired the book.”

“Small Mercies” is the first time Lehane has written prose in four years.

The writing process for the novel began while Lehane was running a television show in New Orleans. The author, who is also a prolific screenwriter, said he’d only been able to write scripts for four years. Once the idea for the “Small Mercies” came to him, the writing came flooding out. In the course of running the show and writing the novel, he dealt with COVID outbreaks and a hurricane that shut down production.

“Somehow on all of this, I decided well, this is the time I want to write a book. And I think that goes back to when I was a kid, that’s how I…dealt with stress. I would take myself away and then I would write, create a world,” he said. “The strangest thing about this book was how pleasant it was to write it.”

Earlier drafts of the novel were more intense.

Lehane wanted to keep the characters in this novel true to the people he grew up around in 1970s Boston, and that meant being honest about the racism he witnessed. One scene in which the protagonist, Mary Pat, lists all of the derogatory names she knows for Black people was cut by his editor for being too intense, but Lehane made sure to keep much of the language in the book. Otherwise, it would have “allowed people to pretend it wasn’t that way.”


“I dialed back the language in the second and third drafts. It was worse at one point…because you have to understand that that is what I heard around me all the time. This was not the exception. This is how people referred to Black people where I grew up,” he said. 

Lehane loves writing about “flawed, complicated” people.

Lehane used to say he didn’t judge anybody in a book unless they were a racist until he wrote a book where the central character is a racist. The book’s protagonist, Mary Pat, is both a loving mother whose personal relationships have been ruined by her hatred. Lehane said he knew many women like Mary Pat and wanted to do the character justice. 

“I’m writing about a woman who’s going to have to confront the legacy of her own racism because racism is something that’s passed down like a disease,” he said. “I knew a lot of people who were virulent racists. And they were simultaneously funny. They loved their kids. They would help you shovel your walk. They would give money to charities…The hardest thing to understand is not just that there’s bad in good people, but there’s good and bad people.” 

Becoming a parent has changed how Lehane writes about family relationships.

While he enjoyed the process of writing the novel, one of the hardest parts was writing about Mary Pat’s missing daughter. As a father of two girls, Lehane said he could relate to Mary Pat’s unrelenting drive to keep her daughter safe.


“I’m [now] a Southern Californian living, crunchy granola, Whole Foods shopping, liberal Democrat, and I have very old school beliefs about what would happen if anybody went anywhere near my children or what should happen to anybody whose children get hurt. It’s very Dorchester. It’s very primal,” he said.

Fans of Lehane’s previous novels may recognize something familiar in “Small Mercies.”

Lehane shared that the narrator of “Small Mercies” is the same narrator of two of his previous novels, “The Drop” and “Mystic River.” 

“They’re all told in the exact same narrative voice,” he said. “It’s the same guy telling you the story…I love that voice. It’s the closest voice to how I grew up so I love that voice.”

If you’re a fan of “Small Mercies” and want to catch up on his previous works, the author recommends “Mystic River,” “Shutter Island,” or “The Given Day.” 

Lehane’s books will always be set in Boston.

Even though he lives in Southern California, Lehane said he will always have love for Boston. 

The author said he set one book outside of Boston and will never do it again. 

“I think I’m past the point as a writer would need to be where I write. I can live wherever I want to live right and write about Boston. It doesn’t matter where I am,” he said. “I carry Boston with me.

It’s always inside of me and inspires me. I can smell it to this day. I can feel it.”