The Given Day By Dennis Lehane

DENNIS Lehane's best selling novels Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone are about to eclipsed by his strongest offering to date, the 700 page The Given Day (Harper Collins), a bracingly sad but ultimately uplifting novel set in 1918 Boston.

It's Lehane's first historical novel - he spent four years writing it - and it's a surefire winner certain to eclipse his previous offerings. The author writes like a man in love with his city and its often painful history, but in particular it's Lehane's tragic and vividly drawn characters that linger in the memory.

The struggle of the workingman for better pay and conditions is most often called idealism by the employer who pays his wages. So it is in The Given Day, which centers around the notorious 1919 Boston police strike, which signaled a major shift in the traditional labor relations of the era, forcing the Boston police commissioner to review their pay and conditions.

The proposed creation of a police union proved a bridge too far for the city fathers, and when the police commissioner refused to allow it, all 1,117 Boston police officers went on strike. What followed next was predictable enough - public strife, riots and widespread looting, with Governor Calvin Coolidge intervening at the last minute to stem the chaos.

Coolidge argued that the police did not have the right to strike against the public safety, and so he brought in the state national guard to restore order to Boston. The strike was broken, permanently, when Coolidge hired replacement police officers, many of which were returning servicemen from World War I, and the former striking officers were refused re-entry into the department.

In Lehane's new novel we see this David versus Goliath tale unfold though the eyes of Danny Coughlin, one of Boston's finest, a man of conscience and principle, which in Lehane's bleak world view means he usually has the farthest to fall.

And fall he does, spectacularly. Working long hours for low pay in harsh conditions, he knows and comes to believe wholeheartedly in the basic justice his fellow policemen are asking for.

But Danny Coughlin is the son of the legendary Captain Thomas Coughlin, and is a nephew of Edward McKenna, one of the most corrupt officers in the Boston Police Department. Before you can say divided loyalties Danny has infiltrated the union radicals to relay their movements to the political powerful forces arranged against them.

But there's nothing trite or simple about the emotional resonance in Lehane new novel, and the author mines his dramatic setup for all its pathos and wisdom. Danny's father and uncle see a threat that reaches far beyond mere pay and conditions in the budding police union, fearing the start of a revolutionary movement to eventually overthrow the capitalist system itself (Russia had fallen to the Bolsheviks a year earlier, after all).

To his own surprise Danny finds himself more and more aligned with the causes he has been sent to undermine. The more he explores his condition the more he finds himself persuaded, and eventually - and ironically - he ends up as one of their leaders.

The enormous, unspeakable - and yes, heroic - cost of principle in a thoroughly unprincipled world is The Given Day's main theme, and Lehane never falters in his examination.

Lehane also has a novelist's eye for telling detail and his characters actions are as central to the narrative as the story itself. A young wife, filled with anxiety about her husband and their dwindling fortunes, polishes the windows in their grimy rooming house nonstop until her husband pleads with her.

A father calls to his son's new apartment to tell him that his relations will no longer visit now that he's been vilified as a radical in the newspapers; it's only five minutes after he leaves the son breaks down.

As so often in the past, the city fathers sought to teach the striking police force a harsh lesson while gently capitulating to their demands. Each new police officer hired in the wake of the 1919 strike received higher salaries, more vacation days and city-provided uniforms, the very demands the original strikers were requesting.

Lehane knows this, and his compelling new novel contemplates the cost to the city, the nation and the individual lives it almost destroyed.

The Given Day will be released on September 23.