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Onyx reviews: The Drop by Dennis Lehane

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/12/2014

Books can take strange paths into existence, but The Drop's circuitous route is especially unconventional. It is based on Lehane's screenplay for the forthcoming movie of the same name (James Gandolfini's last film), which he expanded from a short story called "Animal Rescue" that was itself salvaged from an earlier novel attempt. 

The Drop is set in Lehane's Boston, and in the same universe as Mystic River, the events of which are mentioned in passing but do not play a part in this story. It is the tale of a lonely bartender named  Bob Saginowski, who has worked for years in a dive called Cousin Marv's, after it's current manager and former owner. Marv really is Bob's cousin, but he no longer owns the establishment. He once was a player with a crew in the Boston underworld, but he blinked when challenged by a Chechen gang, so now he works for them.

Illegal money changes hands here but, more importantly, Cousin Marv's is one of a chain of bars that could be the daily "drop" site: the place where the take from all of the other businesses is brought to be collected. Bars are chosen at random each day and no one knows in advance where the drop will be, thus minimizing the chances of robbery or police raids.

Cousin Marv's is on the police radar for a number of reasons. They know who owns the place and what goes on there, but it was also the last known location of Richie Whelan, who reportedly went out to buy dope and vanished. The cops think Marv and Bob know more than they're saying, and everyone assumes Whelan is dead.

Bob is a Catholic who regularly attends mass at his lifelong parish cathedral but does not partake of communion, a detail that is noticed by Detective Torres, who is also part of the dwindling congregation. There are some sins a person can't come back from, Bob believes, but the nature of his sin is kept secret until late in the book.

Bob's life has been in a rut for a long time. He doesn't know how to make friends or approach women. However, things change when he finds an abused pit bull puppy abandoned in a garbage can. The owner of the house, Nadia, an odd and damaged woman, confronts him when she finds him digging through her trash, but the dog and its plight helps them form a bond. Owning the dog and watching it thrive empower Bob, and others observe the change, though everyone doesn't approve.

A lot of things happen in this brief novel. The dog's former owner, Eric Deeds, a psychotic low-life, demands its return. Cousin Marv's is robbed and the Chechens want their money back, as well as information about the perpetrators. Bob's parish faces closure. Torres stays on Bob's case, even though he has no support from the rest of the police department.

The Drop is packed with gritty action and grittier characters. Everyone has secrets and no one can be trusted. There is no hero: Bob is an anti-hero at best, but he's trying hard to better his situation for the first time in a long time. The book's main question is whether those around him will allow him to save himself. This may not be as layered or rich as some of Lehane's more recent works, but it fits in well with his briefer noir novels. Readers will enjoy getting to know Bob and pull for him to succeed.

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