Few novelists have done as much to improve the lot of Hollywood speech coaches specializing in Boston working-class vowel sounds than Dennis Lehane. Indeed, the Dorchester native and literary anthropologist of Beantown neighborhood repartee has had such a spectacular run with movie versions of his novels (“Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “Shutter Island”), it is surprising to consider that he had no hand in their scripts.
How ironic, then, that the first major Lehane-scripted film to make it into theaters, “The Drop” (opening Sept. 12), should be set in Brooklyn. It seems especially weird when one considers that the Lehane short story on which it was based, “Animal Rescue,” took place in Dorchester, and that his new novel, “The Drop” (spun off the script), returns this crime thriller to the Flats-area streets of the source material.
Perhaps one can view the novel as a gesture of setting the record straight, as well as an act of penance on the part of the author for having relocated himself, lock, stock, and family, to California. One can forgive Lehane for straying, especially as his book is as authentically grounded in place as his earlier works and more pleasurable than any tie-in novelization with such a contorted evolution has a right to be. And “The Drop” benefits from bracing blasts of Lehane-ian humor that were conspicuously absent from those hit screenplay adaptations, in particular the portentous “Mystic River.”
California dreaming is beyond the mundane quotidian activities of Lehane’s quietly suffering protagonist, Bob Saginowski, who lives alone in the same house in which he was raised and pours brew at a neighborhood bar whose gemutlich name (Cousin Marv’s) belies its sinister activities. Named for the joint’s manager and Bob’s actual cousin, who was forced a decade back to cede ownership to local Chechen gangsters, Cousin Marv’s is now used to launder the gang’s ill-gotten drug-trade and prostitution profits.
In contrast with his unsentimental and virtue-challenged cousin, Bob draws from spacious wells of feeling, refilling the glasses of deadbeat barflies when he should be showing them the door and unburdening his loneliness in tearful confessions with his priest.
As in the original short story, “The Drop” gains traction when Bob rescues a withering bull-terrier puppy from a garbage can and finds himself in a nasty imbroglio with the dog’s original owner, a menacing ex-con named Eric, Eric’s self-abusing former girlfriend Nadja, and the Chechen hoods, who have a habit of insinuating themselves whenever character development or a filigree of local color threatens to impede the flow of action.
“The Drop” is riddled with prototypical eruptions of violence and casual cruelty that flatten us with their suddenness. As scoundrels go, Eric is such an alluring creep that he upstages the resident representatives of law enforcement, who usually figure in more prominently in the author’s oeuvre. In lieu of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, the private-investigating duo who have oiled the plots of several Lehane thrillers, we get the adulterous hanky-panky of detective Evandro Torres, sniffing out illicit activities at Cousin Marv’s, and his ex-task-force partner Lisa Romsey, “the hottest prickliest Latina who ever strapped on a gun.”
Such cheesy Mickey Spillane-isms are fortunately the exception. Lehane has more fun with the syntactical politesse that has characterized fictional low-lifes since Damon Runyon. “A man who has a moral center knows what he knows and knows what has to be done,” explains a Chechen gangster through arduous circumlocution. “A man with no moral center, however, does not know what he does not know and you can never explain it to him. Because if he knew the thing he did not know then he would have a moral center.”
Despite the Dorchester underpinnings of Lehane’s language, it is hard to read Marv’s dialogue without imposing the bullish Tony Soprano-ish cadences of the late James Gandolfini, making his final film appearance in the role. Such is the hazard of a novel that arrives pre-cast in movie form. If “The Drop” is minor Lehane, it possesses an insider’s specificity that lifts it shoulders above the generic paperback novelizations that were rushed onto soda-fountain carousel bookracks in days of yore.
Watch the trailer for the movie “The Drop”:
Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.