Influenced by the gritty realism of James Ellroy and James Crumley (especially The Last Good Kiss, 1978), Dennis Lehane calls his writing noir, for its dark mood and the almost palpable presence of unbearable evil that are constants running through all his work, beginning with the five Kenzie-Gennaro detective novels and continuing through the nonseries novels Mystic River and Shutter Island.
The neo-noir aspect of Lehane’s writing is most evident in his graphic descriptions of violence—killings, torture, maimings, and excessive displays of inhuman behavior. Characters have their hands and tongues cut off, spines are broken by being jumped on until they crack like splintering doors, and victims are crucified on the ground. Violence is emblematic of, as Patrick realizes in Darkness, Take My Hand (1996), “[e]verything rancid in this world . . . swastikas and killing fields and labor camps and vermin and fire that rained from the sky.” The violence extends to the psychological realm—in Prayers for Rain (1999), for example, the monstrous Scott Pearse is able to kill Karen Nicholls by simply torturing her psychologically and driving her to commit suicide, all without touching her.
More than anything, Lehane’s novels demonstrate humanity’s great capacity for unspeakable evil. The evil is so all-encompassing that none of the novels seem to have any kind of enduring moral center. Patrick is swept up by it, killing an unarmed man in the first novel of the series, participating (albeit with a kind of disgust) in the bowling alley scene of Darkness, Take My Hand in which Jack Rouse and Kevin Hurlihy, themselves icons of power and unconscionable evil, are tortured unimaginably before being killed and “disappeared.” Innocent characters like Grace Cole and her daughter Mae are driven out of the fictional world of the novel; pure and simple characters like Karen Nicholls are driven to suicide; children like Amanda McCready are returned to exploitative parents to have all hope and light stripped from them. There is never an easy answer—even the protagonists and everyone with whom the reader wants to identify are flawed in some way.
In Lehane’s novels, children are almost always victims. This provides the novels with a certain power—who does not agonize over child abuse?—without becoming cheap exploitation of the images for the sake of sensationalism. Lehane is genuinely concerned with the plight of children in society, which at best drugs children with television and commercialization and strips them of hope and joy, and at worst commits unspeakable acts of violence against them. This redoubles the feeling of hopelessness one gets from Lehane—not only is this generation evil, but also it is replicating the evil in future generations. Every evil character has a past history of abuse and mistreatment.
Another major theme in Lehane is gentrification, the slow infiltration of vacuous and morally empty yuppies into strong ethnic neighborhoods. The yuppies bring condominiums where triple-decker houses used to stand, trendy cafés where neighborhood delis used to be. This is the transition from the Flats of Mystic River, where working-class Jimmy and Dave grew up, to the upperclass Point, where Sean Devine resides. Though Lehane shows the dark inner workings of the neighborhoods, he still seems to believe that they are better than what is replacing...
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