Dennis Lehane’s Best
Dennis Lehane is a take-no-prisoners writer. He just grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. Few writers so boldly and vividly combine opposites – love and violence, crime and rectitude, humor and a fascination with the darkest aspects of human nature. Our Seattle Times crime fiction reviewer said that Lehane combines “sympathy for the vulnerable, a fast-moving storytelling style, and a gift for conveying the most bittersweet, ironic and tragic of moments.” So this is going to be a Dennis Lehane reading list, first and last.
World Gone By is the third in a trilogy, in which Lehane, who had already established his chops as a great crime fiction novelist, took on the historical novel.
The first in the trilogy was 2008’s The Given Day, a sweeping historical epic against the backdrop of the 1918-19 flu epidemic in Boston, with corrupt politics, racism and a police strike in the mix. This book introduced Joe Coughlin’s family, including his father, a cop, and his older brother, also a cop (Joe Coughlin is the main character in World Gone By). It was generally agreed that Lehane did a great job with The Given Day – I guess crime is crime, regardless of the era, but Lehane excelled in portraying the early 20th century version.
The Given Day was followed by 2012’s Live by Night, and it narrowed its focus to Joe Coughlin. Joe, the second son of the Coughlin family, turns to crime as a teenager. After serving time in prison, where he is taken under the wing of a gangster, Joe starts a new life running rum from Havana to Florida. This is where he meets his wife Graciela, who is intensely devoted to the Cuban revolution and talks Joe into doing some gun running for opponents of the dictatorial regime. This book established the theme of Joe as a person who walks both sides of the line; he blends in to straight life to some degree and even has sympathy for the oppressed, but at heart he’s a gangster. He has that “arctic fury” (Lehane’s words) in his soul.
Besides Lehane’s virtuoso writing, the last two books have a wonderful setting – Florida, the multicultural melting pot. Florida is just an incredibly interesting, verdant and vibrant place, both for its tropical location and for its close proximity to the Caribbean. And did I mention smuggling?
Partly because it’s got that geographical connection, Florida is a mishmash of all kinds of people, as Lehane’s cast of characters in World Gone By shows – the black population, the Cuban population, gangsters hoping to cash in on crime, the “straight” white aspirational business population hoping to capitalize on the latest legal gold rush. It’s the perfect setting for a crime novel. I came to this profound realization the other night when I was watching “Miami Vice” reruns on Netflix. All the same ingredients! A multiethnic melting pot of colorful characters, gangsters and smugglers, plus cops and those who love them. That mix is one reason why Florida has so many great crime fiction writers, starting with the great Ross MacDonald.
Moving backwards in time, I want to talk a little about the books Lehane made his name with, a series of mysteries about two Boston private investigators, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.
The fourth book in this series, 1998’s Gone Baby Gone is especially noteworthy; you may have seen the terrific movie of the same title, both directed by and starring Ben Affleck. In Gone Baby Gone, these two investigators are hired to look into the disappearance of a young woman, but they soon discover that the young woman’s mother is a piece of work – a neglectful parent, an unreliable witness, and an armed robber, among other dubious achievements. This book has many twists and turns, and the deeper you get into the book the more the suspense ratchets up. The resolution to this mystery is devastating, and let me say that I did not see it coming.
But Lehane was just warming up. His 2001 novel Mystic River, set in the same tough, blue-collar Boston milieu as his mysteries, is simply one of the best novels of any kind I have ever read. It’s a terribly sad and brilliantly told story of three childhood pals who have grown to manhood in very different ways. In adulthood, the daughter of one is murdered. A second friend is the investigating cop. The third, troubled friend, who was abducted by molesters as a child, is a suspect. This is another book that just gets more gripping as you read along. The movie, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon as the three friends, was one of the best book-to-movie adaptations I have ever seen.
I was reading some Good Reads reviews of this book, and here is something I wish I had said: “Once the cop (Sean) is on the case, the book becomes very hard to put down, like it’s been duct-taped to your hands…. I think this is the book where Dennis Lehane went from ‘Good Thriller Writer’ to simply ‘Great Writer’.” Mystic River is also a deeply knowledgeable and empathetic portrayal of blue-collar Boston, territory Lehane knows very well.