It becomes immediately apparent from the opening pages of Darkness, Take My Hand that Dennis Lehane has upped the ante since A Drink Before the War. Darkness, Take My Hand stands in stark contrast to A Drink Before the War as a new level of sophistication permeates the story. The prologue allows Lehane to demonstrate for the first time his desire to toy with our expectations for these characters.
It could be said of A Drink Before the War that it ended on a high note that fostered certain hopes for the characters specifically the two leads Patrick and Angie. Lehane is happy to destroy those closely held notions that were carefully constructed right from the start and the experience is all the more richer for it.
If the characters were given three dimensions in A Drink Before the War then Darkness Take My Hand breaths life into them. We learn a lot from Patrick in those first few pages, none of which is predictable and all of it shocking. The device used is that of the present looking back, so we don’t know what happened yet. We set our imaginations free and try to conceive of the horrors that brought such results and Darkness Take My Hand details all of it.
Even after the lead in the gut opening when we go back to the beginning of the story the tone is still different then A Drink Before the War. Patrick is not as sarcastic as the first book.
He is in a relationship and has found a certain level of happiness. But he seems to possess a level of melancholy that resonates almost at the subconscious level. Though he has found a level of happiness he seems as if something is missing. Being a first person narrative, he isn’t aware of it, but the careful reader can pick up on it.
Patrick and Angie are hired by a prominent Boston psychiatrist. She seeks protection for her son because a patient of hers claims that she was abused by her boyfriend, Kevin Hurlihy. Hurlihy is someone from the old neighborhood who works as enforcer for the Boston Irish Mob. Hurlihy is now threatening to kill both the doctor and her son.
They begin to tail the son when a local girl is crucified. A local legend and ex-cop turned barkeep informs Patrick that there may be a connection because there was another crucifixion 20 years ago that was kept quiet. The case will send Patrick and everyone surrounding him into the darkest parts of their collective past as they re-examine everything to find the killer. The culminating showdown is unpredictable and unforgettable with the greatest horrors being those closest to home. Every character will be forever affected by the outcome of this book.
One of Lehane’s biggest strengths is that he uses all of the previous books as a foundation to tell the current story. It is absolutely necessary for a reader to have read A Drink Before the War. If you were to read Darkness, Take My Hand without prior knowledge of the series you would find the story unflinching in its portrayal of pure evil but for those who are familiar with the earlier tale it become something else entirely. Lehane uses that knowledge of the first book to continue to build real, sympathetic characters, sometimes in surprising ways.
Two of the villains closest to home in the last book were Phil, Angie’s husband and Patrick’s dad. Lehane makes a concerted effort to humanize both of the abusive men, by showing us that they possess a good side too. Lehane forces us to begrudgingly admit that they couldn’t have been so bad their entire lives. But it’s important to understand that this rounding out of the respective characters shouldn’t be misconstrued as absolution for the sins that we know that they have committed.
Even minor characters are given further depth. Bubba for example is no longer simply the solution to Patrick and Angie’s problems. His personality is fleshed out and we are introduced to some of the characters that are a part of his circle. He is given more face time in the first fifty pages of Darkness, Take My Hand then in the entirety of A Drink Before the War. As further proof that Lehane has a solid grip on the material, and refuses to pigeon hole them, it’s telling that Bubba plays not a single part in the harrowing climax of the book.
The relationship between Patrick and Angie reflects this added complexity as they are further developed in startling ways. In A Drink Before the War Angie jokingly called Patrick “a whore” because of his womanizing ways. Patrick only slept around because the one woman he wanted to be with, Angie, wasn’t available. He was more then ready to be in a relationship, despite what A thought, or wouldn’t admit to herself. When Angie divorced Phil, the possibility of a relationship became real for Patrick and his womanizing ways were curbed.
But Angie went a different route after the divorce. She cut loose from everything in her life leaving Patrick dangling. Since Patrick was relationship ready when he met a great woman, Grace, it was easy for him to enter into a relationship. Though she would never admit it, Angie was dismayed at this development. She was always used to Patrick being there that she became complacent, maybe she wasn’t always aware of what she had in Patrick, so the loss, even if only partially, was hard.
From a “friend” point of view she was happy for Patrick, but it made her sad as well. Its telling that Patrick reveals the origins of a scar, something we the reader have long since known, he carries on his stomach to Grace when he has never once told Angie about it. Thus also further illustrates the importance of having read A Drink Before the War first, the moment when he reveals its origins to her if fraught with importance but for those who are already familiar with the series it carries extra importance that is loaded with implication.
In many ways Lehane begins to lay some of the groundwork for Mystic River in Darkness, Take My Hand in his tentative exploration of ideas, both specific and thematic, that will be further explored and in greater detail with that later work.
As I said previously the climax of the book is so gut wrenching that it will forever affect all involved, us included. The end of Darkness Take My Hand is such a shattering event that it becomes a shadow that will loom over the rest of the series and permeate the other stories. It was bold, if not down right unconventional, of Lehane to so effectively destroy the world of these characters so early in the series, but Lehane is to be trusted as we are better off for such daring story telling.
Taking the apocryphal tale of Hemmingway’s six word story to heart Lehane sets out to invest his six words with as much power as possible. Those six words, once encountered, will become a haunting refrain for the series. The final words of the book are, “The city, the announcer assured us, was holding its breath”. The city is us, we are holding our breath to see what will happen next. Holding our breath as we realize what Lehane has done to his characters. Holding our breath to keep from crying.