Thursday 20 July 2017

Review: Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Little, Brown, €18.99

Back to the scene of the crime: Patrick Kenzie, played by Casey Affleck in Gone, Baby, Gone, returns in Moonlight Mile
Back to the scene of the crime: Patrick Kenzie, played by Casey Affleck in Gone, Baby, Gone, returns in Moonlight Mile

Towards the end of Dennis Lehane's new novel, private eye duo Patrick and Angie and their young daughter Gabriella are engaged in family badinage at Boston's Logan airport when their friend and protector Bubba inquires: "How long's this cute-fest going to drag on?" Only for seven more pages, as it happens, but I knew what he meant.

The son of Irish parents who emigrated to Boston, Lehane has acquired an international reputation as a hard-boiled realist, but you wouldn't guess that from Moonlight Mile, which takes all the familiar tropes of tough-guy thrillers -- wisecracking narrator, girls in peril, vicious villains, bloody shootouts -- and tries to lend the proceedings an emotional depth by portraying its central couple as ideals of connubial bliss and domestic contentment doing dangerous battle with the forces of darkness.

At the book's outset, Patrick and Angie are so hot for each other that they're aspiring to get the sheets of a rented hotel room "so wrinkled they'll never be ironed out". Not long afterwards, she's saying "I just love the hell out of you sometimes", to be met with "Love you too", while later (among many other affirmations of mutual adoration) she murmurs "You know how much I love you?" to which he replies "Of course. Gets me through more than you know, believe me" and she responds "Back at ya".

Do married couples who've known each other all their lives really talk like this? Perhaps some do, but they're mostly to be found in books and films.

Indeed, I was reminded of Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies -- or at least reminded of how their rapid-fire repartee is beyond Lehane's range.

More relevantly, I recalled Robert B Parker's private eye novels, also set in Boston, where the introduction of the insufferable Susan Silverman as Spenser's supposedly enchanting squeeze reduced what had been a sprightly series to mush.

And there are echoes of Parker, too, in the character of Bubba, who's a carbon copy of Spenser's implacable sidekick Hawk -- always on hand to safeguard the lives of his friends and to dole out death to the baddies.

Moonlight Mile is the sixth in a series featuring Patrick and Angie, who were last encountered in 1999's Prayers for Rain.

After that Lehane stretched his range with Mystic River, Shutter Island and an historical novel called The Given Day, so one wonders what brought him back to the characters with whom he began his career -- perhaps the prospect of guaranteed sales from a proven popular franchise.

The storyline returns to familiar ground, too -- specifically, to 1998's Gone, Baby, Gone, at the end of which Patrick had rescued kidnapped toddler Amanda from a couple who weren't entitled to have her but would have looked after her wellbeing and had given her back to the feckless, junkie mother to whom she legally belonged.

Patrick's guilt over this decision has never left him, so when he learns 12 years later that Amanda has vanished again, he vows to find her.

Accomplishing this involves coming up against some very scary Mordovian gangsters, from whose boss's clutches Amanda has snatched both a baby and a Russian icon that he wants back at any cost.

Along the way, other lowlifes are encountered, all of them vividly realised, though Patrick's much-voiced yearning for domestic contentment doesn't really square with his reckless willingness to put himself in almost constant danger.

But that's the genre in which Lehane operates and for which (lovey-dovey interludes aside) he has a real flair.

Yet it's limited by its conventions and doesn't explain how Lehane has acquired his formidable reputation as a writer of real seriousness.

I think he may have the movies to thank for that -- Clint Eastwood's film of Mystic River was more sombre and unsettling than the book on which it was based, and so, too, was Ben Affleck's version of Gone, Baby, Gone, which eschewed the book's comforting first-person confidings for a tone that was much darker and more troubling.

Lehane's critical stock was also bolstered by his contributions to the much-lauded The Wire and by Martin Scorsese's formidable endorsement in adapting his 2003 novel, Shutter Island -- and never mind that the resulting movie was a mess: it was still a Scorsese movie.

Lehane's strengths, though, are those of the genre writer, and the qualities required for such fiction shouldn't be mistaken for those demanded by literature, where little is solved by a shootout or a wisecrack.

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