The Drop

By Dennis Lehane

William Morrow. 207 pp. $14.99

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson

Bob Saginowski attends Mass every morning at St. Dom's but never takes communion, even though Father Regan told him that "the damage done by not taking the Eucharist . . . was far worse . . . than the damage that could be wrought by partaking of the sacrament."

The Bob that Father Regan and everyone else knows is a sad bartender living alone in the house he grew up in. The Bob that God hears from at Mass is a direct descendant of the publican standing at the rear of the Temple, striking his breast and asking for mercy.

In other words, a realist. At least about himself. Which makes him the perfect moral center for Dennis Lehane's The Drop.

Bob works at Cousin Marv's. Marv really is Bob's cousin, but the bar that bears Marv's name isn't really Marv's anymore. Controlling interest has fallen to some Chechen mobsters, who use the place to drop off the day's take from gambling, drugs, and prostitution for an overnight stay and a next-day pickup.

So when two guys in ski masks - one with a pistol, the other with a shotgun - rip the joint off, it's lucky for Bob and Marv that all they get is the money the bar made that night, about five grand.

Bob doesn't fail to notice the two guys could easily drop-kick him and Marv through the goalposts of life, but another thought distracts him: "I just want to raise the dog, he thought for some reason. I just want to teach it tricks and live more of this life."

The night before, the regulars at Marv's had marked an anniversary. Ten years to the day earlier, one of their number, a guy named Richie Whelan, walked out the door to score some dope and was never seen or heard from again.

Richie's buddies raise their glasses in Richie's memory. Then "after the Celtics game whimpered to an end like the mercy killing of a relative no one was particularly close to," they head home. After cleaning up and closing the bar, so does Bob.

On the way, he finds an injured, near-dead puppy stuffed at the bottom of a trash can. And that's how he meets Nadia, owner of the trash can, who agrees to keep the dog for a bit while Bob decides whether he wants to adopt.

Detective Evandro Torres, the cop in charge of looking into the bar heist, recognizes Bob from St. Dom's. He asks Bob why he never takes communion. "That's my business," Bob tells him. Torres smiles. "You think so, uh?"

Torres would very much like to solve the mystery of Richie Whelan's disappearance. It probably won't get him back to Homicide, from which he was demoted a while back for conduct unbecoming, but it may take him a step toward Major Crimes.

Enter Eric Deeds, who's just been released from a prison down South. He claims to have offed Richie Whelan and is sufficiently sociopathic for the claim to be plausible. He also is the guy who stuffed Bob's puppy - now named Rocco - into the bottom of the trash can. He and Bob run into each other one day when Bob is taking Rocco for a walk. Turns out Deeds once had a thing going with Nadia. He also thinks he may want the dog back. Then again, he can use can 10 grand.

Quite a few threads go into this taut little thriller, which started out as a short story called "Animal Rescue." (The film version, which features James Gandolfini in his last role, is scheduled for release on Friday.)

What makes The Drop so good is not just the pacing, which is just about right, but the mood, which mirrors perfectly Bob's supremely understated personality.

There's also the very stylish writing. Sitting in a BarcaLounger in Marv's den, Bob remembers how, "as a kid, he'd liked this room, but as the years passed and it stayed exactly the same except for a new TV every five years, it felt like heartbreak to him. Like a calendar page no one bothered to turn anymore."

The way life itself can so often seem.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog "Books, Inq.-The Epilogue."