PERSONAL: Male; married; children: two. Education: Columbia University, M.F.A. (fiction writing).
CAREER: Rockland Community College, NY, professor of English; National Education Association, publications editor and writer. Has held various positions such as union organizer and bartender.
Beware the Solitary Drinker, Poisoned Pen Press (Scottsdale, AZ), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: Cornelius Lehane has held a variety of different jobs, including bartending at as many as twenty-four separate bars. His background as an English professor and editor may enhance his writing, but it is his experience on the other side of the bar that makes the setting of his first novel, Beware the Solitary Drinker, so real.
The book took almost ten years to write, and although it received critical praise, some had trouble categorizing it: Beware the Solitary Drinker is at once a mystery, a work of literary fiction, and a crime novel. In an interview with Gwen Glazer for Gazette.net, Lehane stated: "I thought of this as a mystery novel, but not necessarily noir, and a social criticism novel, maybe a political novel. But more than anything else, I thought of it as fiction."
Brian McNulty, the protagonist of the novel, is, according to Glazer, a "gruff-but-warm" bartender who respects the privacy and the space of his customers. He listens more than he asks questions. However, when one of his customers, a woman named Angelina, is found dead, and another customer is accused of the crime, McNulty is forced to make some major changes in his demeanor. Rather than stand back and take an objective stance in everything that is said to him, he must dig into the private lives of the people who frequent his bar as he slowly evolves into an amateur part-time detective. Although he believes the murderer is not the man the police have accused, McNulty thinks it likely that another of his customers killed the young woman.
It is the dead woman's sister, Janet, who convinces McNulty that he needs to become involved in the investigation. She prompts McNulty to help her uncover information that only he could pry from the people who hang around his bar—serious drinkers with a rash of personal problems and a lot of secrets—any one of them a possible suspect. In the course of their search, they even uncover secrets about Angelina, as incidents from her past are discovered. The tension of the case rises when yet another customer is killed. Angelina's sister, who becomes McNulty's love interest, keeps McNulty inspired. In the end, they find the culprit by unearthing a link in her past that leads to the actual murderer.
Beware the Solitary Drinker is filled with eccentric characters, all of whom seem to be enchanted by the young Angelina. Most of the characters are men who seek solitude but do not want to be alone, and Oscar's bar meets their needs. A writer for Kirkus Reviews described the overall atmosphere and setting into which Lehane positions his characters as being "drenched in wistful melancholy." The same reviewer also insinuated that Lehane's "affection for his cast of misfits" is obvious. Meanwhile, Rex E. Klett for Library Journal stated that "Brian's bar-focused outlook" and the bar "family" make for a "colorful reading."
In his interview with Gazette.net, Lehane said that in many kinds of noir writing, the overall theme is that the "little guy is defeated." He just can't stand up to the powers against him. They are "overwhelming, and he's not going to make it." However, "I don't accept that," he added. "I accept the struggling and fighting back."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2002, review of Beware the Solitary Drinker, p. 1179.
Library Journal, October 1, 2002, Rex E. Klett, review of Beware the Solitary Drinker, p. 132.
Publishers Weekly, November 4, 2002, review of Beware the Solitary Drinker, p. 66.
Gazette.net,http://www.gazette.net/ (December 9, 2002), Gwen Glazer, "Creating Outside of the Lines".*