Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, 2003

Your whole life, you wished for something like this. You told yourself you didn't, but you did. To be involved in a drama. And not the drama of unpaid bills and minor, shrieking marital squabbles. No. This was real life, but bigger than real life. This was hyper-real. Her husband may have killed a bad man. And if that bad man really was dead, the police would want to find out who did it. And if the trail really led here, to Dave, they'd need evidence.

She could see them sitting at the kitchen table, notebooks open, smelling of coffee and the previous night's taverns, asking her and Dave questions. They'd be polite, but scary. And she and Dave would be polite back and unruffled.

Because it all came down to evidence. And she'd just washed the evidence down the kitchen sink drain and out into the dark sewers. In the morning, she'd remove the drainpipe from under the sink and wash that, too, douse the insides with bleach and put it back in place. She'd put the shirt and jeans into a plastic trash bag and hide it until Tuesday morning and then toss it into the back of the garbage truck where it would be mashed and chewed and compacted with rotten eggs and spoiled chickens and stale bread. She'd do this and feel larger, better, than herself.

"It makes you feel alone," Dave said.

"What's that?

"Hurting someone," he said softly.
---(pages 68-69)

Although you would be hard-pressed to find two novels less alike in style, tone, setting and story than Mystic River and Case Histories, the two do have something in common. They are both written by authors with strong prose and a "literary" bent who have chosen to tell their stories through the prism of so-called "genre" fiction. In the case of Histories, that genre is the classic private-eye mystery, while Mystic River is a superb homage to the hardboiled police procedural, although it's also a classical tragedy and a character-driven story of loyalty, family and violence.

Growing up in a rundown Boston neighborhood, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus and Dave Boyle were friends. Their world changes when Dave is abducted by pedophiles, a catastrophic tragedy that will irrevocably impact all three of them.

In adulthood, echoes of the past interfere with a shocking new crime: the brutal murder of Jimmy Marcus's daughter. Sean, now a state policeman, struggles to solve the case, while Jimmy, a reformed criminal, contemplates revenge upon the prime suspect: Dave Boyle, whose average-guy facade masks dark demons.

Lehane handles the novel's twin genres incredibly well: it's a glorious character study, but also a rousing and shocking murder mystery. His plotting is so deft that most of the time you don't even realize that clues are being carefully dropped. The solution to the central mystery is absolutely perfect and completely shocking, even though Lehane leads up to it nicely.

But Mystic River is a lot more than just an effective crime novel. It's a bleak portrait of three very different men and the effect that one act of evil has had on them. Lehane's characterizations are absolutely dead-on. Dave's descent into madness, Sean's wildly dysfunctional marriage, Jimmy's attempt to deny his own inner darkness, all are simply, but powerfully drawn. A scene near the end of the novel provides an incredibly scorching, riveting sequence of drama that could be matched by very few writers. A scene like that brings to mind Shakespeare or Faulkner faster than Hammet or Leonard.

When Lehane's prose is on a roll, he operates at an incredibly high level. Admittedly, I found the hyper-macho tough-guy dialogue to be a bit wearing at times, and I don't think that his portrait of the close-knit urban neighborhood was as effective as some of the other elements, but the moments of literary brilliance more than make up for it. There is some really superb writing going on here, as well as some fantastic plotting.

Not only is Lehane good at high drama and Shakespearean tragedy, but also at the more mundane details that make his world convincingly real. The logistics of dealing with enormous amounts of forensic evidence, the difficulty of lying to a police officer, the need for grieving people to surround themselves with food. Most thriller/mystery authors present a glossier worldview; Lehane's is recognizable, material and human, which only serves to make the crime-fiction elements of the story realer and scarier.

By the end of Mystic River, Lehane has thoroughly fulfilled the novel's promise, delivering a tight, masterful plot along with gobbets of gorgeous prose and some moments of character arc resolution that are jaw-dropping in their perfection, such as Jimmy's chilling acceptance of himself as an evil person. None of these moments could have been reached as effectively in a "standard" literary novel with no violent conflict. When it comes to literary versus genre fiction, Mystic River definitively proves that you can have your cake and eat it, too.

NEXT UP: A Storm of Swords, the third Song of Ice and Fire novel.

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