Dennis Lehane can write. No, that’s not a given for this list. Some books I love may not be written eloquently or in a compelling manner. Lehane does both, and far far more.
“When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their fives and never ate dessert”.
I love chocolate. After this first paragraph, I questioned that love. I picked up the odor from the pages, and I lived the characters’ lives as Lehane’s prose flew by. Lehane creates an unsafe complex world, in 1975 Boston, when three childhood friends are accosted by male strangers in a car, with only one making the fateful decision to get in, Dave Boyle. Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus relate the kidnapping to the police, and a few days later, Dave appears, physically sound, but spiritually scared. He remains mum about his experience, while the neighborhood assumes he was molested, or worse, he consented to sex. Dave is shunned. Jumping ahead 25 years see the former friends leading diverse lives, Sean is a cop, Jimmie an ex-con, and Dave, a shadow of a man. Jimmie’s missing 19 year old daughter, and subsequent murder is the catalyst that brings the three former friends in contact again. As Sean investigates the horrible death, Dave’s odd behavior and actions come under scrutiny, with his childhood abduction lurking in the background as fodder for suspicion.
Lehane lays out a story from the various protagonist’s point of view, without using first person. The plot is layered and tight, and yes, not cheery. The emotional turmoil of losing a child is not blunted here. You feel this man’s agony, understand his almost animal desire for revenge, and at the same time have empathy for damaged Dave. The misunderstanding of coincidental actions that are perceived as evidence lead Jimmy to a wrong conclusion. A tragedy of a mistake. That is not righted. Jimmie is unmoved by his own deplorable actions. Sean knows, cannot prove, but knows and will forever be watching his former friend for any law breaking actions. The revelation of the identity of the murderer is almost an afterthought, and justly so, because this is not a whodunit. It’s not even a whydunit. It’s a study of a certain area of the country, of a particular economic class, and how the actions on one day can change the course of so many lives. It is a dark vision, one that doesn’t flinch from reality. There are no pretty endings, no satisfactory–the bad guy gets his–, because bad guys are good guys and back again. And yet, as the reader, if you are like me, you don’t come away depressed, rather the opposite. You’ve lived with these characters and their difficult lives and understand a bit more about the human condition, and you’ve experienced the unquestionable genius of a storyteller. Lehane’s lines say it all:
”It had occurred to Sean once…that maybe they had gotten in that car. All three of them. And what they now thought of as their life was just a dream state. That all three of them were, in reality, still 11 year old boys trapped in some cellar, imagining what they’d become if they ever escaped and grew up.”
A footnote–if your only exposure to this title was the excellent film, rethink, because as good as the film is, the book is richer, deeper, and always better
Don’t forget to check out the Best 100 Mysteries of All Time list