Dennis Lehane, Moonlight Mile. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.
About ten years ago I picked up a book at my branch of the Los Angeles public library entitled Shutter Island and was introduced to Dennis Lehane. The book impressed me because it was an unusual sort of mystery and appealed to me due to its Boston locale. I didn’t know much about the author though that same year the first major film based on a Lehane novel was released. Mystic River, which I watched with a very strange audience at the Los Feliz 3, and Shutter Island inspired me to dig into Lehane more deeply and I believe I picked up Prayers for Rain next, introducing me to Patrick Kenzie and, in that novel, his estranged lover Angie Gennaro. For readers familiar with Lehane’s novels you’ll recognize that this was an “ass end to” way to approach the characters, who had been introduced in his award winning 1994 novel A Drink Before the War.
I liked the characters, I liked Lehane’s style, and, as someone who had been away from my home state of Massachusetts for nearly ten years at that point, the scenes gave me a nostalgic thrill as well. I had always enjoyed Robert Parker as well, whose Spenser mysteries had been a staple to me since the mid 1980s, but there was another personal connection with Lehane’s chosen environment.
My parents on both sides grew up in Dorchester, one near Uphams Corner, the other in a couple of different houses closer to Neponset Circle. These names, if you are not connected to the area, are meaningless, yet the neighborhoods and the parishes shaped my parents’ lives immensely along with six aunts and uncles and a variety of grandparents, great aunts and uncles, cousins, etc. Dorchester itself is the largest “subdivision” of Boston and home to about 1/6 of that city’s population. It has long been a home to shifting groups of immigrants – indeed Lehane’s parents were Irish immigrants.
I spent a lot of time in Dorchester as a child, chiefly at the paternal ancestral home on 8 Barry Park near Uphams Corner. The Aietas owned that house from about 1905 or so until 1987 – there’s a photograph hanging downstairs in my house now portraying my great-great grandfather, his wife, and various sons and daughters sitting on the porch. My mother would (and still does!) talk about her girlhood in Dorchester and walking from parish to parish on Holy Thursday to make the stations of the cross. My mother and father both knew the family who lived at 6 Percival Street at one time, a house made famous as being the first “This Old House.” I have heard the specific version of the Boston accent unique to Dorchester so much in my life that at times, it is easy to figure out that someone is not just Bostonian, but from a specific neighborhood within Dorchester.
This latter point can be amusing and, in the case of Hollywood movies, can be annoying. One of the most amusing examples was on day one of a long term substitute teacher job, sitting in the faculty room listening to an English teacher tell a tale. When completed, I introduced myself and said, I’m sorry, but which parish in Dorchester did you grow up near – I think St. Peter’s but…he laughed and affirmed my guess but pressed me on how I could have known. Or the woman I sat next to randomly at a history conference whom I quizzed as to how close to Neponset circle she must have lived – pretty close as it was perhaps two streets from my mom’s place on Westglow.
My point is that good authors make their environment as much a character of their books as the people they create. Lehane is a master on this front though sometimes in subtle ways (eg, discussing the cross streets, which T stops run where, etc). Equally important of course, is that while I care about the neighborhoods, perhaps more than typical readers, I also deeply care about Patrick and Angie. They are, as is often the case in tough mystery novels, principled people but who also make some interesting choices and whose decisions and use of violence is often something that makes some readers a bit squeamish. It is one of these decisions, made by Patrick in Gone, Baby, Gone that is probably the most infamous and debated both by those who read the novel and/or saw the film. Indeed, that decision creates serious repercussions for Patrick and Angie’s relationship, and ultimately the crux of the story expressed in Moonlight Mile.
I can’t say much about this story without giving away important details about the mystery, but Amanda McCready, disappeared and rescued by Patrick some 12 years earlier in Gone, Baby, Gone is once again missing. Central to Moonlight is Patrick’s struggle with whether he did the right thing by returning Amanda to her addicted and checked out mother, a debate that is augmented by his mixed feelings about his current main employer, and of course, Amanda’s new disappearing act.
There is much to commend in the novel, including Lehane’s caricatured portrayal of a fitness guru’s offensive mind processes, a wonderful quick nod to television’s Arrested Development, of which Patrick is assuredly a fan, and the presence of minor sociopath Bubba Rogowski. One of Lehane’s strengths is typically dialogue which is why an important scene in which Patrick is talking with a number of prep school girls falls a bit flat. Maybe it is because I taught at the west coast version of a school like the one Lehane is portraying, but the rhythm and word choices there didn’t quite ring true. I think of M. T. Anderson’s masterful Feed and how he captured that late adolescent patter so well and wish this scene in Moonlight had read as smoothly.
In the end, that point is quite a minor complaint – the mystery is solid, the moral dilemmas are intriguing, and the twists in storyline are believable which can be a challenge in private detective fiction. If Lehane can pardon the pun, on any given day, I enjoy his work whether it is the mystery novels or the rich historical fiction. I’ll be investigating Live By Night shortly and I urge others to do likewise!