On that very short list of authors whose books I buy without thinking twice, Dennis Lehane is undoubtedly at the head. His five previous novels, starring Boston detective duo Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, have pride of place on my bookshelf, and could serve as textbooks for crime fiction writers everywhere with their crisp dialogue, dark themes and masterful plotting.
Fans of Lehane may be disappointed, however, to hear that his latest oeuvre, "Mystic River", doesn't star either Kenzie or Gennaro. Instead, Lehane has branched out in a different direction, with a dramatic story of how the sins of the past can come back to haunt you years later. Set in a working-class neighbourhood of Boston, "Mystic River" introduces us to Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus and Dave Boyle, three men irrevocably marked by an experience they shared as children. When they meet twenty-five years later, Jimmy Marcus is a happily-married businessman, Sean Devine is a troubled homicide detective; and Dave Boyle is struggling to keep his marriage and his finances afloat.
When Sean is assigned to investigate the brutal murder of Jimmy's nineteen-year-old daughter Katie, he struggles to uncover the truth and bring the murderer to justice. Driven by grief and sorrow, Jimmy sets off on a personal quest for vengeance, one that can only be satisfied with blood. And as both Jimmy and Sean begin to suspect that Katie's violent death is somehow connected to Dave Boyle, their shared past comes back to haunt them, shaping the decisions they make and sending the three men on a collision course towards each other.
You'd think this was enough to build a story on, but Lehane adds enough twists to make you dizzy; intersecting sub-plots keep things interesting and influence the story in unexpected ways, and the ending, when it comes, is a violent shocker. As always, Lehane's descriptions of Boston neighbourhoods are spot-on, evoking pictures of dark alleys, dreary bars and shattered dreams, and his fictional suburb of east Buckingham is imaginatively constructed and described.
It's with the characters, though, that Lehane hits pay dirt. Negating stereotypes of right and wrong, Lehane has always created characters who are both heroes and villains, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, flawed yet always believable; in "Mystic River", he has outdone himself. In Jimmy Marcus, Sean Devine and Dave Boyle, Lehane has created a triad rife with possibilities and rich with character; you never know what these men are going to do next, but you can't wait to find out.
A dark skein runs through "Mystic River"; the lights are dimmer, the music angrier and the streets more dangerous. There are fewer wisecracks, and each character is haunted by the demons of the past. Despite this, it's one of the most compelling crime novels I've ever read, one which asks important questions about courage, relationships, and morality...and understands that there are no easy answers.This article was first published on 04 Jun 2001.