Most people who read Dennis Lehane first come at him from his highly successful series featuring private eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, the first installment of which, A Drink Before the War (1994), won the 1995 Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel. Since then, his books have routinely landed on the New York Times Bestseller lists. My first exposure to Dennis Lehane, however, was through his fabulous short story, “Running Out the Dog,” in Otto Penzler’s anthology Murder and Obsession, where it was featured alongside Elmore Leonard’s “Sparks” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Vampire.” I remember reading the story, expecting it to be a middling effort between the luminaries afore mentioned, and discovered instead a stunningly well-crafted short story. And apparently, I wasn’t alone in that opinion, for the story was chosen several years back as one of the best mystery stories of the Twentieth Century in Tony Hillerman’s massive collection The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century.
After reading that story, I went out and got a hold of everything I could find by Lehane. I flew through all five of the Kenzie-Gennaro novels, plus the two stand alone novels Mystic River and Shutter Island, before finally discovering his short story collection Coronado. The collection includes the stories “Running Out the Dog,” “ICU,” “Gone Down to Corpus,” “Mushrooms,” and “Until Gwen.” It also contains a two act play called Coronado, based on the short story “Until Gwen.”
Three of the stories in this collection are excellent. I’ve already mentioned “Running Out the Dog,” which is the story of two Vietnam vets who get hired to do a really dirty job by a man whose wealth and class allowed him to opt his way out of service in ‘Nam. Class differences and strained loyalties are the themes here, and the story is truly a great effort from an accomplished writer.
Another one of my favorites from this collection is “Gone Down to Corpus,” which, like “Running Out the Dog,” tells the story of class differences and strained loyalties. In “Gone Down to Corpus,” a group of friends get together to break in and trash the extravagant mansion of one of their former teammates who fumbled the ball at a crucial moment and cost them their championship season. While they are destroying the beautiful home, they accidentally run across their teammate’s younger sister, who has some emotional baggage of her own.
Of the three great stories in this collection, “Until Gwen” might actually be the best. It tells the story of father and son con artists. There are no loyalties in this story, not even between father and son, and the father might very well be one of the most depraved mustache-twirling villains in recent years. I’ve read some other reviews that call the story juvenile and the villain a cheap, cardboard cutout, but I have to disagree. There is a mean streak in the character that is so abrasive you just can’t help but be attracted to him. And there’s a nice twist at the end.
On the whole, Coronado is a good collection. The three stories mentioned above are truly outstanding. The others are not as good, but they’re not that bad either. If you’re new to Lehane, check out the stories I recommend. They should be enough to convince you that when Lehane is on his game, he can really smoke up a page.