Review of Books

John Gorgan's Marley and Me

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
December / January 2009

Dennis Lehane had already made an impressive name for himself as the author of stylish crime noirs set on the gritty streets of Boston when Hollywood came calling.

First, it was Clint Eastwood, who turned Lehane’s taut psychological thriller Mystic River into a classic movie.  Next up was Ben Affleck, whose directorial debut was based on Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone. Finally, there’s Martin Scorsese, who is currently shooting Lehane’s novel Shutter Island. (Leonardo DiCaprio is among the stars.)

You might see why Lehane, having clearly conquered the crime genre, might want to spread his wings. That is just what he’s done with his new 700-page novel The Given Day. Set during the infamous Boston police strike of 1919, The Given Day is epic in scope, a historical novel which, though far from perfect, is an impressive achievement nonetheless.

At the center of the novel is Danny Coughlin, the son of an Irish immigrant cop who has risen to the upper ranks of the Boston police department. This position of privilege ends up feeding

Coughlin’s stubborn streak. He has deep union sympathies, can’t keep his mouth closed when he should, and always seems to be falling for the wrong girl. Eventually, Danny’s love life forces him to go to war with his own family.

But Danny’s conflicts represent just one strand in Lehane’s multifaceted story. There’s also an Irish immigrant maid with a dark secret, as well as an African-American who tries to live a clean family life in the South, until he gets tangled up in a crime caper and is forced to flee – to Boston.

This is the strongest aspect of The Given Day, the collision of these diverse forces, amidst the chaos (first) of a flu epidemic, then a terrorist campaign by anarchists and, ultimately, the police strike.

Not quite as successful are Lehane’s efforts to incorporate bigger names from the past. There is a storyline featuring  Babe Ruth, who was a great pitcher for the Boston Red Sox before changing the game of baseball as a home run champion with the New York Yankees. The Ruth aspect of The Given Day does not quite work.  The inclusion of a young J. Edgar Hoover in the plot line also feels a bit forced. Nevertheless, The Given Day is a powerful, thought-provoking read, which certainly will ring true to contemporary readers, as we struggle with issues of terrorism and immigration, just as Lehane’s characters do.
($27.95 / 704 pages / Morrow)


The Wormdigger’s Daughter by John Farrell is a powerful novel of Ireland in the 1920s, in which a farmer’s scheme to escape a nasty landlord serves as a strong metaphor for the plight of many Irish during one of the hardest decades in Irish history.

Even before they faced off against the powerful land baron, Molly and Frank – the married protagonists at the center of Farrell’s novel – were living a hard life.  Three of their four children have died.  When they discover that the landlord might be planning to win over their beloved daughter Molly, they decide to make a run for it.  As a result, the family is depicted as a band of criminals on the run. They are given a chance to evade punishment – fittingly, by fellow farmers, countryside radicals and sympathetic Irish Americans.  The question is: Can the family escape intact?  Farrell builds The Wormdigger’s Daughter to a powerful conclusion.
($18.95 / 253 pages /
Mercier Press-Dufour)
Another tortured era of 20th-century Irish history is explored in John Kerr’s Cardigan Bay.  Set during World War II in Ireland, prior to the invasion of D-Day, Kerr examines Ireland’s complex stand of neutrality during World War II, while also telling a compelling tale of Nazi assassination plots and IRA gunrunning.
($25 / 344 pages / Corona)


Father Mychal Judge became such a symbol of hope and sacrifice amidst the suffering of September 11, that he has been discussed as a future saint in the Roman Catholic Church.  As New York Daily News columnist Michael Daly – who has just written a fascinating biography of Judge’s life and death – has said: Judge would probably consider sainthood a demotion. The point, of course (as made clear in Daly’s book), is that Judge lived the kind of life he did not because he some day wanted to be canonized, but because he believed good works to be their own reward.

Because Judge – the beloved chaplain of the New York City Fire Department – became so well known in the wake of 9/11, it is easy to forget that this was a man who had seen wondrous, horrible and amazing things many years before. He also faced numerous personal challenges, whether it was coming to terms with alcoholism, the more complicated aspects of Catholicism and politics, and his decision to join the priesthood.

The son of immigrants from Leitrim, Judge also struggled with his homosexuality, a controversial topic which Daly does not shy away from, and upon which he, in fact, sheds interesting light. The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge ultimately reveals Judge to be quintessential New York Irish-American, whose life, just as much as his death, should serve as an inspiration for generations.
($27.95 / 388 pages /
Thomas Dunne)


Peter Tremayne is back with another mystery of ancient Ireland, entitled Dancing with Demons.  The latest in his popular Sister Fidelma series is set in 669 A.D., and revolves around the murder of Ireland’s High King and Fidelma’s efforts to not only solve the crime, but also keep the kingdoms of Ireland from descending into civil war. Dancing with Demons should certainly please the many fans of Tremayne (the pen name of acclaimed Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis).
($24.95 / 288 pages /
St. Martin’s Minotaur)

Another bloody era in Irish history – Belfast in the 1970s – is the setting for Sam Millar’s hard-boiled Bloodstorm.  Karl Kane tried but failed to get a job with the Northern Ireland police force, so instead he toils as a private eye.  He also struggles to come to terms with a horrific crime he witnessed as a child, one which affected him in particularly damaging ways.
But when the opportunity arises for Kane to deal with the man responsible for this heinous crime, he is unsure what to do. Millar creates admirable tension as the conclusion of Bloodstorm unfolds during the holiest days of the Christian calendar: Good Friday and, finally, Easter Sunday.
($25.95 / 223 pages /

Brian McGilloway’s debut thriller Borderlands is a murder mystery set in contemporary Ireland. As McGilloway’s sleuth, Inspector Devlin, looks more closely at the murder of a local teenager on the Tyrone-Donegal border, it appears to be linked to a killing from two decades earlier – one which the Irish police may very well have had a hand in.  Borderlands is indeed a fitting title, as McGilloway’s book explores the shadowy line between good and evil, crime and punishment.
($23.95 / 227 pages / Thomas Dunne)


Jim Hogan was born in Limerick in 1933, but was abandoned as a child. Through the kindness of others, Hogan went on to become a championship runner, whose best years were spent running for England, where he moved in the 1960s. Hogan’s life story – and specifically his decision to run for his adopted country – is explored in The Irishman Who Ran for England, which features an enlightening preface by David Bedford, who directs the London Marathon.
($28.95 / 157 pages /
Currach Press-Dufour)

For the Irish golf lover in your life, Emerald Odyssey: In Search of the Gods of Golf in Ireland by Paul J. Zingg is a wonderful gift. This book is a meditation on a notoriously difficult yet addictive game, complete with compelling photos and anecdotes of Ireland and golf from a wide range of people – newsmen, poets, historians and, oh yes, golfers.
($36.95 / 191 pages /
Collins Press-Dufour)

Finally, Joseph O’Neill’s celebrated novel Netherland gave cricket new attention in the U.S. Ireland’s 2007
performance at the Cricket World Cup
did the same a bit earlier. Now, the team’s achievements have been captured in vivid photos and compelling writing in Ed Leahy’s Green Wickets: Ireland’s Adventures at the 2007 Cricket World Cup.
($48.95 / 176 pages /

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