Thursday 20 July 2017

Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

A few thoughts on Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River

So this book has been in my bookshelf for nine years, unread! (there are a few that are even older, I’ll get to them eventually). The HT Brunch challenge got me to pick it up, finally, so that’s one (more) good thing it achieved.

Mystic River and Shutter Island are probably the best known of Lehane’s books, thanks to the movies. Reading MR, one can see why it got turned into one. There’s a very atmospheric quality to the writing, describing a typical, downmarket, Boston neighbourhood and the people there. The story starts with three boys, one of whom gets abducted by pedophiles, and then escapes them after four days. This is just the bare bones, though - the reactions of all the three, their families, and their neighbours, are what give the narrative its texture.

The “real” plot then starts twenty years later, with these three kids grown into adults. A murder takes place, the event and the investigation eventually enfolding all the three protagonists. Events trigger off events, as in the best crime stories. This is not a police procedural - and that’s kind of its strength. I’ve written elsewhere that police procedurals are typically bound by their genre - the policeman must catch the bad guy eventually, most of the characters must survive to another day, the reliance on the police system must be eventually justified, and so on (see my notes on Cut Like Wound for another example). Here, we have no genre safety net, and anything could happen to even the good guys. Lehane plays this off really well, and the murderers’ motives are perfect for the location and setting.

Spoiler alert: If you’ve seen the third season of Broadchurch, you might find the solution here easier to guess. There are multiple thematic similarities, though no exact matches.

I have only one complaint to make here, and that is the long, long descriptions Lehane puts in. Not War-and-Peace-level long, but still - I bet fully 20% of the book could have been pared out and created a tighter product. You hear about people effortlessly writing thousands of words a day, and then you read something like this and see how they did it. Now, James Ellroy, on the other hand, though his books are just as long and even more atmospheric, doesn’t really have any fluff to his writing.

But never mind that. Once the book gets going, it gets going well, and you are willing to read the 400 pages just for the ride.

But I’m not sure at this point whether I’d read another book by Lehane. 

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