What Makes Dennis LeHane Worth Reading

Most of what I read is crime fiction. We can taste the grit of Los Angeles in the writing of Michael Connelly. Lehane grinds Boston into the enamel. Whether it’s Dorchester or the fictional setting of Shutter Island, we get dropped just a little too close for comfort into the setting of his novels. Streets and parks and triple-layer apartments, he encourages us to hold the hand of the characters and walk with them, see what they see. We don’t mind being led around by the nose because he does it so well. The spiritual questions his people ask are never answered because they’re the same things men and women have been wondering about since the dawn of time. How can people be so evil? Where is God when unspeakable things happen? When was the last time you heard a satisfying reply to the truly hard matters? LeHane and his characters have nothing they can tell you. They’re slogging through the morass, too.

This past month I’ve read three books by him, having already seen the movie adaptations. It’s no wonder they chose his books to bring to film and the screenwriters were faithful to his work. First I read Mystic River, a novel about three friends whose lives are indelibly stamped by the abduction and molestation of Dave. Tim Robbins flat-out earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for portraying the adult Dave. The book fleshes out the man trying to overcome his childhood tragedy and live up to Wolf Boy, his alter ego that bravely, narrowly, escaped from his tormentors. What makes him such a haunting character is: How has Dave managed to not get sucked in the maelstrom and become the very thing he hates? Sean Penn won Best Actor for playing Jimmy Markum, neighborhood bad boy who turns his life around (mostly) after the birth of his daughter that is later murdered. Rounding out the trio is Sean Devine (played by Kevin Bacon), the homicide cop investigating the killing, pulled between two loyalties and memories of growing up with the boys of this rough neighborhood.

Next came Shutter Island. LeHane said the location is based on a Massachusetts mental institution he visited as a child. You can feel the moisture dripping from the stone walls. There’s less hope of escaping this forbidding island than Alcatraz. It’s unnerving when the federal marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) begin interviewing inmates and the people responsible for their care because some of the patients, at least at first, don’t seem all that insane and not all the wardens are particularly sound of mind, either. While hunting for an escaped patient, there’s the twin threat of a hurricane and downed power lines that open the electric cell doors. It has a whopper of a surprise ending I wouldn’t give away for anything. Read the book first if you haven’t seen the movie.

A few hours ago I finished Gone, Baby, Gone. This thriller about a kidnapped child has as many sharp turns as a mountain road. The characters, a pair of private detectives and several morally challenged cops, are more complicated in their depiction than any I’ve read in quite some time. Especially in these ambiguous times, it’s hard to fault the bad guys for what they’ve done when LeHane makes his argument here against the nauseating abusers of children. Patrick Kinsey (Casey Affleck, brother of director Ben Affleck), the narrator, and his partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) take the job of finding the lost little girl even though they know it’s not going to go well, never dreaming it will end the way it does. Neither does the reader/viewer. Does Patrick do the right thing? It doesn’t matter, in his opinion. He questions only the outcome. Never in his own mind does he doubt himself until it’s too late. In the movie he finishes the job he was hired to do in a manner never predicted. Again, I’m not going to be a spoiler here.

What makes Dennis LeHane worth reading is his ability to draw you in. You can imagine life in a grimy Southie apartments, listening to the neighbors quarrel. You envision the poor living conditions of those unfortunate bastards in C block on Shutter Island. Enter the impoverished quarters of an evil child molester and you want to shoot him, too. Smell the garbage and unwashed bodies. Make your feet move faster to exit the bar before you get a pool cue upside your head.

Mr. LeHane’s Boston is grim and dirty and stricken of hope as it is of money. Drink and drugs are waiting to drag the citizens down as surely as one generation is likely to follow the next in a low-paying job, probably raising a family in the same house they grew up in. The outlook is stark, bleak and humorless. Then, one of his clever people crack a joke ringing with the same irony cops and doctors use in order to do their harrowing jobs and maintain a bit of reserve. You have to laugh, too, because it’s not funny. It’s painfully true to life. Neighbors come together to face tragedy and roast hot dogs while the minimum wage dads crack open a beer, maybe get into a fistfight. Pull a chair onto that sagging front porch of an evening, wave to folks unafraid to take a walk because they’re just as tough as the streets they come from. This is Dorchester.

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