Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dennis Lehane: Hardboiled and Humane

Dennis LeHane has finally published what will almost certainly be the last of his beloved Kenzie-Gennaro detective novels. In honor of the occasion (and to test drive my new Kindle) I downloaded all six, and read them in order, from A Drink Before the War, Darkness Take My Hand and Sacred to Gone Baby Gone, Prayers for Rain and the most recent one, Moonlight Mile. The books have a strong through-line and this was the ideal way to experience them: as a single, self-contained 1800 page morality play, love story, heroic quest and gritty noir procedural combined into one overarching, poignant, harrowing and beautifully sustained narrative.

In short: a masterpiece.

The books are probably most familiar to the public from the movie version of Gone, Baby Gone, which was a strong and admirably faithful rendition of the source material, perfectly cast and unflinching. LeHane has been treated well by Hollywood: Mystic River turned out well and even Shutter Island – a second rate book to begin with – received a pitch perfect second rate film treatment. You couldn’t really ask for more than that.

LeHane has also written historical fiction and short stories – even a play. He worked as a writer on HBO’s classic series The Wire. But for the moment at least, it’s safe to say he’ll be best remembered at the creator of Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.

When we first meet them in A Drink Befrore the War (1994), they’re friends and colleagues, running a low-life detective agency out of the abandoned belfry of a Dorchester church. Beyond any of the cases they work on, or the dangers and corruption they encounter, the real tension in the novel comes from the fact that Patrick has been in love with Angie since high school, and she’s married to his best friend. Phil Dimassi is an abusive drunk and Angie often comes to work bearing the wounds and bruises of her ill-fated marriage. Patrick understands that toxic combination of love and rage: his own father, a fireman he always refers to as The Hero, once burned him with a steam iron in a fit of rage, and Patrick still wears the disfiguring scars on his abdomen. He and Angie come from a brutal world, and they stick with the friends who grew up with them in that urban jungle: columnist Richie Colgan, hard nosed cop Devin Amronklin and e-Marine and arms dealer Bubba Rugowski, whom Patrick describes this way:

…an absolute anachronism in these times--he hates everything and everybody except Angie and myself, but unlike others of similar inclination, he doesn't waste any time thinking about it. He doesn't write letters to the editor or hate mail to the president, he doesn't form groups or stage marches or consider his hate as anything other than a completely natural aspect of his world, like breathing or the shot glass. Bubba has all the self-awareness of a carburetor and takes even less notice of anyone else--unless they get in his way. He's six feet four inches, 235 pounds of raw adrenaline and disassociated anger. And he'd shoot anyone who blinked at me the wrong way.

Bubba is a handy guy to have around when things get violent and in Patrick’s world that happens a lot. A blackmailed politician leads Patrick and Angie into the midst of a particularly horrible gang war in this first novel, an ominously familiar battle between father and son for the control of the local drug trade. It turns out that Marion Socia pimped his son Roland out as a prostitute many years ago, and photographs of him with the politician spark the action of the novel, which ends with Kenzie killing Roland in self-defense – a moment of projected oedipal violence that you know has to resonate horribly inside him. The worst Patrick did himself was refuse to take his father’s hand, in the moments before the old man died.

The horror strikes even closer to home in the second book, Darkness Take My Hand, where the search for a serial killer leads into the heart of the old neighborhood, and a beloved local character turns out to be an authentic monster, murdering children, dismembering adults and at the end of the book, killing Angie’s husband and mutilating Patrick with a straight razor. This is the most intense and traumatic of the novels, and though Patrick and Angie wind up together at the end, both of them are wounded and grieving.

Sacred is the slightest of the books, an appropriate breather at the midpoint of the series. Despite its murderous religious cult, scheming femme fatale and tanker full of heroin, it remains a relatively routine story, burnished by the pleasure of seeing Patrick and Angie living and working together as a couple. The idyll doesn’t last long.

In the most well known installment of their story, Gone, Baby Gone, Kenzie and Gennaro set out to find kidnapped four year old Amanda McCready. Her mother Helene is possibly the worst parent of all time, neglectful category, leaving the baby alone whole she goes out drinking. Her sister Bea hires the detectives and the case follows a long tortured course involving drug deals gone bad crooked cops, local gangsters and a ring of psychotic child molesters. Kenzie and Gennaro find corruption and murder, they find scraps of a little girl’s life in a deserted quarry. But they don’t find the little girl.

Turns out she was kidnapped by a couple who make a avocation of creating healthy loving homes for abandoned and abused children. The problem – for Patrick at least – is that they do this wholly outside the law, with no oversight from the authorities. So yeah – they’re kidnappers: kidnappers who enforce nap-time and make sure the vaccinations are up to date, who read kids to sleep and help with their homework. “Eat your vegetables” is not a line one associates with child-napping sociopaths. Patrick wants to return Andrea to her mother, however inept or drug addled she may be. He can’t endorse a world where anyone can just grab a kid if they think the parent is doing a bad job. Angie wants to leave the little girl with her new parents. Both sides of this difficult issue have merit, but the conflict tears Patrick and Angie apart. Patrick wins: Andrea goes home. But he loses Angie over the case and winds up alone and the book reaches its dark and bitter conclusion: you can do the right thing and be dead wrong, and pay the consequences forever.

Near the end of the book, Patrick is invited to an all-cop ‘touch’ football game – Homicide Robbery versus Narcotics/Vice. He gets pounded and threatened by Remy Brussard, one of the policemen involved with the case, Later it turns out that Brussard faked the kidnapping to get Amanda into a loving home … and of course, to steal the ransom money for himself. He’s a dangerous thug, perfectly willing to kill to cover up his crimes; Patrick winds up killing him in a shoot-out a little later on.

I sketch this in to set up the following fragment of LeHane’s prose, which I think gives a good sense of how beautifully he writes these books, sentence by sentence:

We won by a field goal.

As a guy who grew up as desperate to be a jock as any other guy in America, and one who still cancels most engagements on autumn Sunday afternoons, I suppose I should have been ecstatic at what would probably have been my last taste of team sports, the thrill of conquest and the sexual intensity of the battle. I should have felt like whooping, should have had tears in my eyes as I stood at midfield in the first football stadium ever built in this country, looked at the Greek columns and he rain boiling off the long planks of seating in the stands, smelled the last hint of winter dying in the April rain, the metallic odor of the rain itself, the lonely advance of evening in the cold purple sky.

But I didn’t feel any of that.

I felt like we were a bunch of foolish pathetic men unwilling to accept our own aging and willing to break bones and tear the flesh of other men just so we could move a brown ball a couple of yards or inches down a field.

And also, looking along the sidelines at Remy Brussard as he poured a beer over his bloody finger, doused his torn lip with it, and accepted high fives from his pals, I felt afraid.

As Prayers For Rain begins, Patrick Kenzie has become a regret-addled solo act, missing Angie, who has gone to work for a corporate detective agency and left him on his own. His regrets multiply when he fails to take a phone call from a client who’d been harassed by a crazy guy that Patrick and Bubba scared off. Easy work: Bubba is good at scaring people. Taking off for vacation, Patrick figured he could touch base with the girl when he got back from Bermuda. But by then she was dead, a suicide victim who threw herself off a tall building downtown. The effort to prove her death wasn’t suicide leads Patrick into the twisted world of a sociopath who destroys people for fun. He doesn’t kill them, but rather takes everything away from them, ransacking and vandalizing their lives until they wish they were dead. The investigation reveals layer upon layer of festering family secrets, guilts and grudges going back decades. It comes to head in an underground bunker, with Bubba leading the way into battle. The villain is revealed, but he laughs when Patrick admits that he could never win at chess because he could never “see the whole board”. He finally does grasp the big picture, of course, but it takes several months for him to do it. When he lifts the rock on that last squirming nest of family dysfunction and walks away, he goes home with Angie and we leave them happily in love, wounded but standing tall, together at last, ready for new dventures.

It seemed that LeHane was finished with Patrick and Angie at that point. He left them to themselves for more than ten years, moving on to other projects, including the sweeping historical epic The Given Day. But the conclusion of the series felt inconclusive, somehow: would Patrick and Angie keep working together? Quit and start a family? Break up? Whatever may or may not have been kicking around in LeHane’s head, the series was just five books about the same two people at that point, a typical detective franchise, cut short and left dangling.

LeHane must have felt the urge to tie things up and finish the story, because he has done it now, with style and conviction.

Moonlight Mile invokes the past: Andrea McCready has gone missing again. She's sixteen now, tough and self-contained, with a hard carapace from living all those years with her drug addict mother. Now she's involved with the Russian mob, trying to save her friend's baby from child trafficking and a particulatrly loathesome crime lord and his psychotic wife. The boss wants the baby back -- as well as a hugely valuable stolen antiquity: the Belarus cross. Fortunately, his immensely dangerous Capo, one Yefim, winds up on the side of the angels. He wants the boss killed as much as everyone else and turns on him in a crucial moment saving everyone's lives and assuring a much more sane and intelligent criminal empire, with himself running things. Yefim likes Patrick, finds him smart and amusing, and we can't help liking Yefim, crazy as he is ... although we know he would have killed Patrick and everyone else we have come to care about if it suited his plans. Horrible enemy -- bizarre jovial ally. A strange combination, replete with Lehane's signature moral ambiguity, clapping Patrick on the back in a room full of corpses, offering him stolen blu-ray players and kindles (Patrick turns down the kindle; the blu-ray he gives to Amanda). Parick finds himself oddly detached, considering the murders he's just witnessed -- tribute to the shit he's been swimming through for so many years. And just like that, he decides to quit the life.

He calls Angie and his daughter -- whom he had sent to her mother's house down south, to hide from the trigger-happy mobsters. He throws his 45. into the Charles and tells her the news.

Let's eavesdrop:

"Know what it is, babe?" I looked back at the trailer. "When you start out doing this, you think it's just the truly horrible shit that's going to get you -- that poor little boy in the bath tub back in '98, what happened in Gary Glynn's bar. Christ, that bunker in Plymouth ..." I took a breath, let it out slowly. "But it's not those moments. It's the little ones. It's not that people fuck each other over for a million dollars that depresses me, it's that they do it for ten. I don't gve a shit anymore whether so-and-so's wife is cheating on him, because he probably deserved it. And all those insurance companies? I help them prove a guy's faking his neck injury, they turn and drop coverage on half the neighborhood when ythe recession hits. The last three years, every time I sit on the corner of the mattress to put my shoes on in the morning, I want to crawl back into bed. I don't want to go out there and do what I do."

"But you've done a lot of good. You know that, don't you?"

I didn't.

"You have," she said. "Everyone I know lies, breaks their word, and has perfectly legitimate reasons for why they do. Except you. Have you noticed that? Two times in twelve years, you said you'd find this girl no matter what. And you did. Why? Because you gave your word, babe. And that might not mean shit to the rest of the world, but it means everything to you. Whatever else happened today, you found her twice, Patrick. No one else would even try."

And that's what sets these books apart, as we come to the final chapter: the violence and trauma these two people see, and suffer (and occasionally inflict) affects them. It wears them down, wounds them, leaves scars that won't heal. That's just not true of other crime fiction heroes. Joe Pike and Jack Reacher soldier on; so do Elvis Cole and Harry Bosch and all the others. Patrick and Angie feel the pain of the world they live in, and allow themselves to be tormented by the tragedies they investigate. They're real people and they wind up doing what real people -- what any young couple with a toddler -- would really do: walk away, take that boring job, go back to school, start living like civilians -- just start living.

It means there won't be any more books about them, but I'm happy to see them go, to see them start over, and I wish them good luck. Lehane has brought them to that rarest of moments: a satisfactory conclusion, a happy ending, a new beginning. And in the process he has created a startlingly bulky (amost 2000 pages!), but graceful, suspenseful, lightfooted and big hearted novel of Boston and its people.

I can't wait to see what he'll do next.

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