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Dennis LaHane

Review: Dennis Lehane's 'Moonlight Mile'

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Dennis LaHane

Moonlight Mile, bestselling Irish American author Dennis Lehane’s shattering sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone, heralds the long–awaited return of private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro for another thrill ride. CAHIR O’DOHERTY explores the characters and plot twists that make Lehane’s latest thriller his best yet.

Sometimes a book’s sequel completely surpasses the original. Moonlight Mile (William Morrow), which goes on sale on November 2, is Irish American author Dennis Lehane’s long-awaited follow up to his New York Times bestseller Gone, Baby, Gone, and although it’s taken over a decade to appear in print, once you settle down with it you’ll realize that it’s been entirely worth the wait.
It’s vintage stuff this, another dark but absurdly enjoyable tale that’s so beautifully written and so sharp in its details and atmosphere that it’s no wonder Lehane’s books attract filmmakers with such ease.

In Gone, Baby, Gone, the book that went on to became one of the best thrillers of the past decade, four-year-old Amanda McCready disappears from a Boston apartment, and the trail eventually leads the hard-bitten private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Genarro to take on the case. But the pair risks everything for the girl only to have her returned, in the end, to a neglectful mother and a broken home. As endings go, it’s not exactly feel good.

In Moonlight Mile, Lehane’s fast paced and often frightening sequel, we meet Amanda once again, but this time she’s 16. Despite her bad start in life, she’s turned into a brilliant young woman -- but it’s not long before Amanda’s aunt is knocking on Kenzie’s door, when Amanda goes missing without a trace for two weeks.

Lehane’s daring here-we-go-again plot device is one that most writers might run from. But Moonlight Mile doesn’t just work -- it hands-on-heart surpasses Gone, Baby, Gone in both in its provocative subject matter and its treatment. Moonlight Mile simply gets inside your head, asking heartbreaking questions and making its two all too human heroes confront impossible choices along the way.

The new book also pulses with Lehane’s love of Boston.  The son of two hard working Irish immigrants, Lehane, 45, grew up in Dorchester, and he knows the blue collar South Boston Irish neighborhood like the back of his hand.

His father was a foreman for Sears & Roebuck and his mother worked in a Boston public school cafeteria. From day one he had no illusions about who he was or what life had in store for him.

But when he discovered his talent for writing, he found a way to shape his future that he never anticipated. It’s no wonder he’s been so driven to succeed.

Looking back at his output over the past 10 years, Lehane’s list of novels read like a who’s who of many of the best thrillers of the decade -- Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River, Shutter Island and now Moonlight Mile. It’s a wonder that he and his wife Angie, who now divide their time between Boston and the Gulf Coast of Florida, ever have a moment for themselves.

Much of the surprising darkness of Lehane’s writing may be explained by his own past. Before becoming a full-time writer, Lehane worked as a counselor with mentally handicapped and abused children. That work gave him uncomfortable insights into the darkness that can envelop so many young lives, and that tragic and often terrifying note has been a consistent theme in his work to date.

Before he became a writer Lehane also held many of the signature blue collar Irish gigs like waiting tables, parking cars, driving stretch limos, working in bookstores and loading tractor-trailers. His one regret, he says, is that no one ever gave him a chance to tend bar. But it’s not likely that he needed to do the research, since he grew up surrounded by Irish pubs and their fast talking denizens in Dorchester.

“The world I grew up in had the most influence on my writing,” Lehane recently told the press. “It was very verbal and extremely comic in a gallows humor kind of way. It was also a world I didn't see too much of in books or film or TV and the few times I did see it, they tended to get it wrong.”

If you’ve read Gone, Baby, Gone or seen the film, you’ll know that Lehane gets the details of the world he’s writing about right. Especially when it comes to the very conflicting emotions of his central characters.

Taking on another missing Amanda case in Moonlight Mile is not something that Lehane’s detectives Kenzie and Gennaro, who are now married with a child of their own, do lightly.

This time, though, they vow to each other that the outcome will be different for the young woman whose safety they want to ensure. With the stakes this high, Lehane knows the reader will be immediately hooked.

And it’s not hard to see why Hollywood has become so enamored of each new Lehane book too, because the truth is that his cinematic writing already does most of the heavy lifting for them.

Few of his contemporaries have Lehane’s near obsession with the telling detail (and getting them precisely right), and he’s also quietly emerging as one of the greatest writers about class and its consequences that America has produced in decades.

But its Lehane’s tough as nails characters (who are almost always more than usually flawed) that fascinates the actors who play them. They’re Irish in the best sense, in that they live, love and express themselves so vividly they could only really come from an Irish American stronghold like Dorchester in the first place.

By keeping his locations close to his Irish American home and staying close to his own origins, no matter how successful and rich he’s become (he has moonlighted on the writing staff of HBO’s The Wire, bringing his own brand of carefully observed local color to the show) Lehane stays true to the Irish American neighborhood where he was raised.

Lehane has also been more than usually lucky in working with a series of top flight directors who had enviable control of the final films, so he has never been subject to shooting by committee productions that can take even the most straightforward script and turn it into a three ring circus.

What’s also remarkable about Lehane’s books is that that they are as literary as they are thrilling. With his ear for dialogue and the telling line, Lehane’s new book blurs the boundary between thriller and novel to the point where the distinction becomes meaningless.  His characters are so vividly described that they almost leap to life in front of you.

But the thing that marks Moonlight Mile is the shivery darkness of the world that’s being described in it, and the tough moral maze his characters have to walk through. Their fears quickly become as real as your own as Lehane leads you toward his heart-stopping finale. Moonlight Mile is so deftly plotted that you won’t even see it coming. 

Less remarked on than his obvious gift for characterization is Lehane’s skill at drafting exciting, unpredictable plots.

Moonlight Mile turns into a white-knuckle thrill ride of a book, reeling you in from the first page and practically guaranteeing you’ll miss your subway stop all week.

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