Dennis Lehane is a master at balancing literary ambition with popular appeal. Novels like Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone have the structure of standard thrillers, with a mystery to be solved, a variety of suspects, and a last-minute reveal. But Lehane invests these familiar beats with surprising psychological depth. His heroes are flawed men as much in need of saving as the people they try to protect, and even when the central conflict is resolved, the resolution can be more unsettling than the original crime. In The Given Day, Lehane expands his horizons. He's still working out of his beloved Boston, but the time is just after the end of the first World War, and the central conflict isn't a murder or kidnapping, but the social injustice at the heart of a nation.
Day splits its focus between two men. Danny Coughlin is a white Boston police officer and son of one of the best-loved captains in the city. Luther Laurence is a black man from the Midwest on the run from his past. Between their stories, Lehane details a Boston on the edge of social breakdown, from the working class struggling to get through 70-hour work weeks to the corrupt city leaders obsessed with bringing down the anarchists in their midst while ignoring the problems that gave those revolutionaries power in the first place. It all builds to the Boston Police Strike of 1919, when beleaguered lawmen took to the streets to demand reasonable wages, and the city nearly ate itself alive.
As a historical novel, Day is partially successful; Lehane lacks E.L. Doctorow's perspective or the poetry of Michael Chabon's prose, but he makes the problems of a century ago seem as desperate and vital as anything on the evening news. Danny and Luther's efforts to define themselves in a system designed to cut the legs from under anyone who stands too tall are conventional but moving, and Lehane's attempts at epic are sometimes rote, like the inclusion of a young John Hoover in an FBI subplot that winds up exactly nowhere. Other efforts are more successful, and the events of the strike itself are frustratingly short, but grippingly portrayed. Day never fully justifies its 700-page length or its ambitions, but it isn't a journey anyone would begrudge taking.