Small Mercies (2023) is an intense thriller that takes place in Boston in 1974, when the city’s busing crisis was just getting started. The story centers around a single mother in the neighborhood of South Boston, whose daughter goes missing on the same night a Black man is found dead under suspicious circumstances.
Introduction: Enjoy a thrilling crime drama from a master of the genre.
Table of Contents
Like many of Dennis Lehane’s novels, Small Mercies is set in Boston, Massachusetts. This time, the tale takes place in South Boston – or “Southie” as it’s often called – and is set against the backdrop of the school-busing crisis that began in 1974. As the city made efforts to desegregate its public school system, people in white enclaves like South Boston launched ugly protests that frequently became violent.
Lehane uses this dark period of Boston’s history to tell a story that’s part murder mystery, part revenge tale, but at its core is a true suspenseful thriller. It revolves around Mary Pat Fennessy, a tough-as-nails mom who will stop at nothing to find out what happened to her missing daughter, even if it means going up against the criminal gang that has controlled the town for generations. And a fair warning before we begin: things get very violent in the sections of this summary that follow.
South Boston, Massachusetts, summer of 1974
It’s late August. It’s hot, it’s humid, and people are agitated. A couple of months before, a federal judge had decided that Black school children were at a systemic disadvantage when it came to their education, and thus public schools needed to be desegregated. And this court ruling is set to take effect on the first day of the coming school year.
This means that students will be bused into different neighborhoods. It means that kids from exceedingly white neighborhoods like South Boston will be bused into Black neighborhoods like Roxbury – and vice versa. It means that, in just a couple of weeks, Mary Pat Fennessy’s daughter, Jules, is scheduled to attend her senior year at Roxbury High School.
Mary Pat and Jules live in the Commonwealth, one of Southie’s affordable housing projects. Mary Pat is 42 years old, and she’s what you’d call a tough Irish broad. She’s spent her whole life in the rough-and-tumble courtyards of the Commonwealth. She doesn’t even like to cross the bridge into the integrated streets of downtown Boston if she can help it.
Mary Pat works at a nursing home and a shoe warehouse, but it’s still a challenge for her to pay the bills. Today, after she wakes up, empties the ashtrays, throws away the empty beer cans and lights her first cigarette of the day, the doorbell rings.
It’s Brian Shea, a guy she’s known since childhood. Along with another scary guy named Frank “Tombstone” Toomey, Brian is one of the senior members of Marty Butler’s crime crew. Mary Pat’s first husband (and Jules’s father) worked for the Butler crew, doing burglary and break-and-enter jobs. After he disappeared, she needed to get him pronounced legally dead before she could marry her second husband, Ken. Unfortunately, not long ago, Ken left both her and South Boston behind.
Brian informs Mary Pat that Marty wants her to help prepare for the big anti-busing demonstration in downtown Boston on Friday. This involves putting some signs together and handing out some leaflets around town.
Mary Pat doesn’t mind doing some legwork to support the anti-busing cause. As far as she’s concerned, this issue isn’t about race – it’s about the injustice of being told where your kid can and can’t go to school. It’s about a decree coming from some rich judges and politicians living in fancy neighborhoods that aren’t affected by the order. Southie and Roxbury have the same broken homes and the same marginalized people striving for the same things anyway. Why would they want to come here in the first place?
Yet the signs and the graffiti around town tell a different story. The N-word is spray-painted across walls and parking lots, saying “go home,” “go back to Africa” and a lot worse.
As for Jules, she can be a handful. While they’re going door-to-door, passing out leaflets, Jules gives her mother a headache by asking her what it’s all about – how can living in Southie your entire life be enough? It doesn’t make sense. She also gives Mary Pat a hard time about their household’s unpaid bills and general lack of money.
But the bottom line is, Jules is everything to Mary Pat. Her daughter is all she’s got left. She had another child, Noel, who was drafted and sent to Vietnam. He came back, but not exactly in one piece. Something was missing, and so he turned to drugs. Noel overdosed on heroin he bought from a local dealer, George Dunbar. Everyone knows that George is the son of Marty Butler’s girlfriend. Which means George never gets arrested and never faces any consequences.
Since Jules means so much to her, Mary Pat would love to see her with a better boyfriend than Ronald “Rum” Collins. Rum is a dimwitted kid with zero conversational skills and an idiotic laugh that makes Mary Pat want to smack him over the head. There’s dumb and nice, and dumb and mean, and she can tell that Rum will end up being very much the latter.
All Mary Pat can do is grit her teeth and bear it when Rum and Jules’s friend Brenda show up at her apartment on a hot summer night to take her daughter out for some fun.
A son dies and a daughter goes missing
When Mary Pat wakes up to find that Jules had not come home the night before, she realizes that this is not necessarily unusual summertime behavior for a 17-year-old. And yet, she also feels something’s wrong.
Before going to work, she calls Brenda’s house. Brenda’s father tells her that his daughter didn’t show up last night, either. He tells her, somewhat unsympathetically, not to worry. They’ll show up when they run out of money.
When Mary Pat arrives for her shift at the nursing home, there’s more ominous news. One of her coworkers, Calliope Williamson, hasn’t shown up. Moments later, she sees the big news item of the day: a young Black man had been found dead that morning, lying on the tracks at Columbia station, one of the public transit stations in South Boston. The authorities believe he must have died sometime around midnight the night before.
Coworkers are already whispering that the guy must have been a drug dealer or a car thief. Why else would he be in Southie? But Mary Pat recognizes the name: Augustus Williamson. That’s her co-worker Calliope’s son. She talks about Augustus all the time – Auggie, she calls him. He was a high-school graduate who was in some management training program. Why would he be dealing drugs in Southie?
It’s not long before Mary Pat senses some troubling connections between Auggie’s death and Jules’s disappearance. When she’s finally able to get in touch with both Brenda and Rum, she immediately knows they’re withholding something. Brenda tells her they were hanging out at Carson Beach, and when she last saw Jules she was walking off with Rum. Rum, on the other hand, says that the last time he saw Jules she was getting a ride home from George Dunbar – yes, the same asshole who’d sold Mary Pat’s son the heroin that killed him. What the hell? Mary Pat promises that if she finds out Rum is lying, there will be hell to pay.
And, of course, when Mary Pat confronts George, he says Rum is a liar. He didn’t drive her home; Jules walked home alone. But the one thing that they all agree on is that they started the night drinking at Columbia Park, but then, around 11:45 PM, they headed to Carson Beach. In her life, Mary Pat has never known teenagers to be so precise about the time, especially when booze is involved. Her suspicions are confirmed by her niece, who says that just around midnight, she saw all four of them at Columbia Park – yes, in the same area where Augustus Williamson died.
Being a woman of her word, Mary Pat tracks Rum down at a local bar run by the Butler crew and proceeds to beat the ever-living crap out of her daughter’s dumb-as-a-doorstop boyfriend. She knocks him down and stomps on him until three guys at the bar are finally able to pull her off of him. One of those guys is Brian Shea. He implores her to cool off. In fact, why doesn’t she just give Marty and his boys one day – until 5 p.m. tomorrow – to find Jules? Reluctantly, she agrees.
What she can’t do, however, is keep the cops from talking to her. The next morning Mary Pat gets a visit from Detective Bobby Coyne. Coyne is there to see Jules. He tells her that there were witnesses that night, on the train platform, who saw Auggie Williamson and a group of white kids – two boys and two girls – “exchanging words” before Williamson ended up dead. One of those girls matched Jules’s description.
Mary Pat learns that, like her son, Coyne was in the military, and she can tell that he’s also a recovering addict. Coyne’s from a different neighborhood, Dorchester, but he knows the rules of Southie and knows how to talk to Mary Pat. Immediately, they have a respect for one another.
Unsurprisingly, word about this police visit quickly reaches Marty Butler. He’s not happy about it, and he doesn’t have good news. Marty tells Mary Pat that Jules went to Florida. He hands her a bag containing stacks of hundred dollar bills. He tells her to go to Florida. Get a nice hotel room. Look for your daughter there.
This is the point at which Mary Pat knows for sure that her daughter is dead.
Mary Pat’s in a daze. She’s been sitting in her apartment, completely numb. Sometimes she snaps out of it and returns to the here and now, with no recollection of how much time has passed.
At some point, six women show up at her door. They’re from the Southie Women Against Busing group. It must be Friday, because they want to take Mary Pat to the demonstration at City Hall. She lets herself be dragged there, but it’s pointless. She sees all this hate around her – people screaming and chanting ugly, racist words, spitting on others – and she couldn’t care less. But something stirs inside her. She begins to feel her own hate rising. This hate, however, has nothing to do with the busing issue, and everything to do with the people who killed Jules. Jules, who’s … in some other place now. Mary Pat wonders, will she wait for her mother to find her there?
Mary Pat quickly heads home and finds the bag of work tools her first husband left behind, tools of the burglary trade – things like lock picks, gloves, a glass cutter, electrical tape. She grabs the bag, walks out the door, and gets in her car, knowing she may never see the Commonwealth again.
A short while later, Detective Bobby Coyne receives a call at his home. Rum Collins has arrived at the police station, beaten to a pulp, blood all over his pants, wanting to spill his guts about what happened at Columbia station.
Why did Rum Collins suddenly want to confess? Someone hit him with a car, punched his face repeatedly, took off his pants, and threatened to cut off his genitals with a box cutter. This assailant – who isn’t named, but who Coyne knows is Mary Pat – told Rum that he had a choice: either confess to the police, or next time, he won’t escape fully intact.
Rum tells the cops exactly what he told Mary Pat. Jules, Rum, Brenda, and George were hanging out at Columbia Park, drinking. They saw Auggie Williamson slowly drive by. George yelled at Auggie to not so much as look in their direction. The car was clearly breaking down, but it passed them by. Jules went to a pay phone to make a call. Brenda went with her. Jules was calling Frank “Tombstone” Toomey, another high-level member of the Marty Butler crew. Frank’s a married man, but Jules was pregnant with his kid and wanted some financial support.
While Jules and Brenda were on the phone, Auggie Williamson walked up to them, asking for some change to take the train. George and Rum ran up and started threatening him. All four of them chased Auggie into the station. George and Rum threw beer bottles at him. This caused Auggie to hit the side of the train as it entered the station. While he was on the platform, they all kicked him, yelling slurs. But they stopped when it looked like he was having a seizure. The train left, and they didn’t know what to do, so they pushed him off the platform, even though he was still alive. Just then, Frank Toomey showed up and told them to “finish the job.” They jumped down and someone hit Auggie Williamson over the head with a big rock, killing him.
Detective Coyne can’t get Rum to say who it was who landed the fatal blow, but thanks to Rum’s confession, both Coyne and Mary Pat now understand what happened to Jules. It wasn’t her involvement in a murder that led to her disappearance – it was her involvement with Frank Toomey.
Nothing left to lose
For Mary Pat, Rum is just the beginning. She now turns her attention to George. She starts by discreetly following him, finding out where he keeps the stash of drugs that he sells. When she breaks in and steals that stash, she then follows a panicked George to his supplier, Marty Shea. She watches Marty give George a big bag of drugs. She then follows George to a garage where he locks up his car and his drugs.
Mary Pat has no problem breaking into the garage and once again stealing George’s drugs. But this time, when George returns, she surprises him. Mary Pat pistol whips him and forces George to shoot some of his own supply. Once the heroin has kicked in, she asks George what exactly happened to Jules. Who killed her?
George reveals that Frank Toomey and Marty Butler killed Jules. George helped hide the body by sealing with concrete a hole in the basement of Marty’s headquarters where they buried the girl. They couldn’t dump her body anywhere else because Marty, who had connections in the FBI, knows the house is being surveilled.
Mary Pat handcuffs George to the steering wheel of his car and calls Detective Coyne to tell him where he can find this accomplice in her daughter’s murder. She then sets fire to Marty’s headquarters, dropping Coyne a hint that, after the firefighters leave, he should look in the basement. They find Jules’ body; a knife wound to the heart was the cause of death.
Finally, Mary Pat tracks down Frank Toomey. She greets him by running over one of his legs as he tries to jump out of the way of her car. Then she puts a bullet in his stomach and drags him into her back seat. She takes Frank to Castle Island, the same area in Southie where Marty Butler gave her the bag of cash and told her to get out of town. The so-called castle is actually Fort Independence, built in the mid-nineteenth century but never the site of any conflict – until now.
Frank’s wife and child watched in horror as she drove off with him, so Mary Pat knows the Butler crew isn’t far behind. She drags Frank inside the granite walls of the fort. She already has his gun, but she finds a knife hidden inside his boot. Is this it? she asks. Is this the knife you used to kill Jules?
Frank tells her that it was just business – Jules was a problem. She knew she was causing trouble, so she got what was coming to her. Getting rid of problems was like shoveling snow for Frank Toomey. He didn’t think twice about it.
Mary Pat is actually shocked at his heartlessness, even if she shouldn’t be. But then Frank tells her that Jules was the one who dealt Auggie Williamson his death blow. Frank wanted the kids to electrocute the guy by throwing him onto the third rail of the train tracks, but Jules didn’t want to. She wanted to put the kid out of his misery, so she picked up the rock and smashed his skull. It was a small mercy.
At that moment Marty Butler and Brian Shea arrive with two other guys. She takes Frank to one of the entrances of the fort and finds Brian Shea just a few feet in front of her, with Marty Butler standing in the distance. Mary Pat has the gun pointed at Frank’s head. She tells Brian to drop his gun, and he does. And then she kills Frank Toomey with one shot. She’s able to wound Marty with one more shot just as she grabs Brian and drags him back inside the fort.
After a quick but brutal exchange of blows, Mary Pat gains the upper hand. She beats him viciously, kicking him without mercy while he’s curled up on the ground. Brian calls her depraved, but Mary Pat finally has the guy she can unleash all her hate upon. He’s the one flooding the community with heroin. He’s the one taking advantage of desperate people, stirring up hate, and turning kids into criminals.
While they’re arguing, Mary Pat can hear something going on outside and someone talking about “a tripod.” Marty Butler served in the Korean War as a sniper, and she has an inkling she might soon see his marksmanship in action. In a room surrounded by windows and openings big enough for a bullet, there’s nowhere to go. Before she can act, Marty fires a shot from outside that passes straight through Mary Pat and kills Brian Shea in an instant. The shot misses her heart, but Mary Pat starts fading quickly from the blood loss. Marty yells for her to walk out slowly and surrender to the crew.
Mary Pat thinks about seeing Jules again. Maybe she’ll even see her son Noel, too. She grips the .45 caliber pistol in her hand. She calls out to Marty, asking what in the world would make him think she’d follow the orders of some spineless creep like him. She steps out of the fort and gets one or two shots off before they open fire.
Detective Coyne is among the cops who arrive just minutes later. Marty Butler and his guys, saying they were protecting themselves against the unhinged woman who killed Frank Toomey, give up quietly. They agree to be taken in for questioning – but as they surrendered without a fight, argued that they killed Mary Pat in self-defense, and possessed legally registered guns, it’s unlikely they’ll be held accountable for Mary Pat’s death.
Coyne always believed that people never really change. But recent events have made him wonder. He pays a visit to Calliope Williamson. He explains that they have a strong case against everyone who was involved in her son’s murder. Calliope asks if it’s true that Mary Pat helped solve the case. Coyne tells her that she not only helped – she made sure that the man most responsible for her Auggie’s death won’t hurt anyone ever again.
When Calliope attends Mary Pat’s funeral, she recognizes her co-worker’s ex-husband, Ken, the guy who left Mary Pat and South Boston behind. Ken recognizes Calliope as well and asks if she wants to go get a drink. Because they’re a mixed-race couple, the bartenders at the Southie pub ignore them and won’t take their order – but that’s okay. They don’t need them. They brought their own flasks.
Mary Pat Fennessy had one thing in her life: her daughter, Jules. When Jules is killed after her involvement in the death of a Black man in South Boston, Mary Pat decides to take matters into her own hands. Set against the backdrop of the busing crisis of the mid-1970s, and the racist fervor it created in the city, Small Mercies shows the hypocrisy of that racism. As Mary Pat confronts the people who killed an innocent Black man, as well as the professional thugs who killed her daughter, we find the truth. We see how the criminal element within South Boston itself was causing far more damage to the community than any busing ordinance ever could.
Society & Culture
About the Author
Small Mercies is a novel set in Boston in the summer of 1974, during the height of the desegregation busing crisis that divided the city along racial lines. The main character is Mary Pat Fennessy, a single mother who lives in South Boston, or “Southie”, a predominantly Irish American neighborhood that resists integration and is controlled by a powerful mob boss named Marty Butler. Mary Pat works as a secretary at a hospital, where she befriends Calliope Williamson, a Black woman whose son Auggie is one of the few Black students who attend South Boston High School.
One night, Mary Pat’s daughter Jules goes missing after hanging out with some friends who are involved with Butler’s crew. At the same time, Auggie is found dead on the train tracks at Columbia Station, apparently killed by a subway train. Mary Pat suspects that her daughter’s disappearance and Auggie’s death are connected, and she begins to investigate, despite the threats and warnings from Butler and his men. She also enlists the help of Brian Shea, an old friend who works for Butler but has a soft spot for Mary Pat.
Meanwhile, two detectives, Bobby Coyne and Vince Pritchard, are assigned to Auggie’s case, which they soon realize is not a simple accident but a murder. They discover that Auggie was chased and beaten by four white youths before he was thrown onto the tracks. They also learn that one of the suspects is Frank Toomey, a ruthless enforcer for Butler and Jules’ secret boyfriend. Coyne and Pritchard try to arrest Toomey and his accomplices, but they are met with resistance from Butler’s lawyers and the corrupt police department.
As Mary Pat gets closer to the truth, she faces danger from both sides of the conflict. She also has to deal with her own personal issues, such as her strained relationship with her ex-husband Ken, who has started dating a Black woman; her conflicted feelings for Brian, who still loves her; and her guilt over neglecting her other daughter Cecilia, who suffers from asthma. Mary Pat also finds herself alienated from her community, which views her as a traitor for befriending Calliope and questioning Butler’s authority.
The novel culminates in a violent confrontation between Mary Pat and Toomey, who reveals that he killed both Jules and Auggie out of jealousy and racism. Mary Pat manages to kill Toomey in self-defense, but not before he wounds her fatally. She dies in Brian’s arms, while Coyne and Pritchard arrive too late to save her. The novel ends with a brief epilogue that shows how the lives of the surviving characters have changed after the events of the story.
Small Mercies is an outstanding novel that showcases Dennis Lehane’s mastery of storytelling, character development, and social commentary. The novel is a gripping thriller that keeps the reader engaged with its fast-paced plot, suspenseful twists, and realistic dialogue. The novel is also a powerful portrait of a city in turmoil, where racism, violence, and corruption are rampant and where ordinary people are caught in the crossfire. Lehane does not shy away from depicting the harsh realities of life in South Boston, nor does he romanticize or demonize any of his characters. He portrays them as complex human beings who have their own motivations, flaws, and redeeming qualities.
The novel’s strength lies in its exploration of the themes of family, loyalty, justice, and mercy. Lehane examines how these concepts are challenged and redefined by the circumstances that the characters face. He shows how Mary Pat struggles to balance her love for her children with her sense of duty to her community; how Brian tries to reconcile his loyalty to Butler with his loyalty to Mary Pat; how Coyne and Pritchard cope with their frustration over the injustice and impunity that they witness; how Calliope deals with her grief over losing her son and her hope for a better future; and how Butler maintains his power and influence over South Boston despite his growing isolation and paranoia.
The novel also raises important questions about the nature and consequences of racism in America. Lehane depicts how racism affects not only the victims but also the perpetrators and bystanders. He shows how racism breeds hatred, fear, ignorance, and violence among different groups of people; how racism erodes trust, respect, and empathy within individuals and communities; how racism influences personal choices, relationships, and identities; and how racism can be challenged or perpetuated by social movements, institutions, and policies.
Small Mercies is a novel that deserves to be read by anyone who appreciates quality literature that entertains as well as enlightens. It is a novel that offers no easy answers or simple solutions to the complex problems that it addresses. It is a novel that challenges the reader to think critically about their own views and actions regarding race relations in America. It is a novel that reminds the reader of the small mercies that can make a difference in a world of cruelty and injustice.