We Were Kings is a well-written, bleak, and violent noir. The year is 1954 and Boston is suffering through a brutal heat wave. A dead body, tarred and feathered, is found on the shore of Boston Harbor and the crime, along with a tip about an arriving boatload of stolen guns, gives Detective Owen Mackey an uneasy feeling. The murder is eerily similar to the Irish Republican Army’s method for dispatching snitches, and the gun shipment’s ultimate destination, if the tip is accurate, is Ireland.
Detective Mackey enlists the help of his cousin Cal O’Brien—widower, former cop, and owner of an unprofitable security company—to keep his ears open for any talk in Boston’s Irish neighborhoods. Cal brings his friend, recovering heroin addict and nightclub piano-player Dante Cooper, along to help on the assignment. The investigation crawls through the neighborhoods and nightclubs of South Boston, where a gangland-style war between the IRA and Irish Loyalists threatens to erupt.
We Were Kings is Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy’s sequel to their first novel, Serpents in the Cold. The oppressive Boston heat, descriptions of the mid-20th-century Irish neighborhoods, and overt violence envelop the story in tragic hopelessness. The protagonists, Cal O’Brien and Dante Cooper, are as broken as the IRA’s ill-conceived scheme, with little hope of repair or redemption. The violence is written with verve, and the story is, if at times slowed by excessive dialogue, strikingly visual with a very readable style.