Dennis Lehane Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Dennis Lehane has extended the gritty realism of James Ellroy and James Crumley to the traditional private detective form. His first novel, A Drink Before the War (1994), won the Shamus Award for best first novel. In the next four novels in the Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro series, Lehane continued to explore the darkest recesses of human behavior, with a collection of violent and grotesque characters few writers would even have attempted. Though he admits that elements of the thriller and more generic crime writing are present in his work and he is clearly aware that he is working within the conventions of the private investigator novel, when asked to classify his own writing, Lehane calls it noir.

Despite the dark tone, there is always an undercurrent of comedy in his novels, from the flippancy of the Patrick-Angie relationship to the comic, clownishly dressed would-be enforcers of Sacred (1997) to Cheese Olamon, the 430-pound Swede who thinks he is an African American. Some critics have complained that Lehane inappropriately mixes tones, switching from the comic to the unbearably gruesome in his works, but his comedy is more organic to his plots than are the wisecracks included by Raymond Chandler or Robert B. Parker. Sacred won a Nero Award and was nominated for a Shamus.

Even when Lehane felt he had exhausted the detective form after five Kenzie-Gennaro novels, he continued to write about crime, mystery, and the horrifying. Mystic River (2001), his best-known work and a critically acclaimed best seller, is imprinted with the style and themes of his series novels—murder, the presence of evil, and the impact of evil on whole generations—but without a detective as a major presence. Shutter Island (2003), an unsettling psychological thriller about a United States marshal trapped in an asylum for the criminally insane on an island during a hurricane, has a surprise ending that goes well beyond the mere unmasking of a killer and questions the very nature of reality and perception.

In 2002, Mystic River became a finalist for the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award (for best book about New England) and won both the Anthony Award and the Barry Award for best novel of the year.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Anderson, Patrick. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. New York: Random House, 2007. Chapter on Lehane looks at his life and how he came to write his first novel. Discusses numerous novels, including Mystic River.

Christopher, Mari. “Lehane, Dennis.” Current Biography 66, no. 10 (October, 2005): 61-65. Biography that discusses his genesis as a writer, stemming from a visit to a public library, and his compelling characters and complex plots.

Dunn, Adam. “A Good Place to Die.” Book (March, 2001): 52. A biographical article on Lehane, discussing his Dorchester roots and how Mystic River used his experiences differently from the way the Kenzie and Gennaro series did.

English, Bella. “The Working Writer: Dorchester’s Dennis Lehane Brings Street Smarts to His Pages.” Boston Globe, September 19, 2001, p. C1. Profile of Lehane looks at his background and how it influenced his writing.

Fierman, Daniel. “Men of Mystery: As Michael Connelly Returns with a Familiar Face, Fellow Neo-noirist Dennis Lehane Charges Off in a New Direction.” Entertainment Weekly 703 (April 4, 2003): 105. Sees Lehane and Connelly as influenced by James Ellroy, neo-noirists who “paint a sweeping picture of what it is to be poor and city-bound in America.”

George, Elizabeth. Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Uses a passage from Mystic River to illustrate the effective use of natural dialogue in fiction.

Lehane, Dennis. “Chatting with Dennis Lehane.” Interview. Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 15 (August 1, 2006): 10. Interview with Lehane concentrates on his turn from the Kenzie and Gennaro series to writing psychological thrillers.

Lehane, Dennis. “Dennis Lehane: Hard-boiled in Boston.” Interview by Louise Jones. Publishers Weekly 246, no. 25 (June 21, 1999): 40-41. Examines Lehane’s family and educational background and how they influenced his works, which at this time were the Kenzie and Gennaro series.

Mackin, Thomas. Review of Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane. World of Hibernia 7, no. 2 (Autumn, 2001): 20-21. Short review that shows how Lehane’s characters in one way or another are forced to confront unpleasant truths about themselves and their pasts.

Reddy, Maureen T. Traces, Codes, and Clues: Reading Race in Crime Fiction. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. The chapter “White Readings of Race” discusses A Drink Before the War, noting that Patrick tries to confront his racism but is prevented from doing so fully because of the “first-person, intensely masculinist narrative voice.”