Dennis Lehane

"Shutter Island"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple APR 20, 2003)

With a tilt of his head, Cawley indicated the window behind him. "To swim that way, you don't reach land for eleven miles. To swim north you don't reach land until Newfoundland."

Teddy said, "And you've searched the grounds."


"Pretty thoroughly?"

Cawley took a few seconds to answer, played with a silver bust of a horse on the corner of his desk. "The warden and his men and a detail of orderlies spent the night and a good part of the morning scouring the island and every building in the institution. Not a trace. What's even more disturbing is that we can't tell how she got out of her room. It was locked from the outside and its sole window was barred. We've found no indication that the locks were tampered with." He took his eyes off the horse and glanced at Teddy and Chuck. "It's as if she evaporated straight through the walls."

U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule, arrive on Shutter Island, a secure facility for the criminally insane in Boston Harbor, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Rachel Solando from her locked and guarded room. While looking for Rachel, a woman who has murdered her three children, Teddy also plans to investigate rumors that the hospital is performing radical brain surgery as part of its experimental treatments. He has a secret personal motive for this trip, however--to find the arsonist who started the fire in which his own wife died, a man believed to be incarcerated on the island. As Teddy and Chuck begin their investigations, with a total lack of co-operation from the hospital staff, the worst hurricane in thirty years bears down on the island. If the power fails and the generators don't kick in, the electric locks and electrified fences will no longer protect Teddy, Chuck, and the staff from the hospital's murderous inhabitants.

Read excerptIn the hands of a lesser author, this might be the setup for a melodramatic and gore-filled pot-boiler, but Lehane artfully creates and maintains a tension-filled atmosphere, full of foreboding, without giving in to the easy temptations of sensationalism as his plot becomes more and more complex. At one point, Teddy describes his fear, as a "sparrow's ghost, pass[ing] through the center of his chest and flapping its wings," a unique metaphor which epitomizes Lehane's vibrant prose and makes it a lot of fun to read. The hospital's orderlies have "deadened faces, as if they hadn't been fed enough as babies," and Teddy, in trying to grasp a partial memory from the past, likens it to a "melody he was trying to remember while the radio played a completely different tune."

Lehane's characters, Teddy and Chuck, are simultaneously tough and vulnerable, able to attract the sympathy of readers because they are so normal, in contrast to the devious hospital staff and the murderous patients. Dialogue is snappy. Revelations come slowly, and are constantly thrown into doubt by later revelations, which raise the suspense. As the tension grows, the "sparrows' ghosts" begin flapping their wings faster and faster. This is a well-written can't-put-it-downer, with a story full of unexpected twists and turns, deceitful characters, life-threatening danger, and a blockbuster ending that will satisfy anyone looking for a novel that is out of the ordinary.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 884 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Shutter Island at

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"Mystic River"

(Reviewed by Hagen Baye MAR 16, 2003)

Fans of Dennis Lehane will not be disappointed by his first novel that does not involve the Angela Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie private eye duo of his first five books. Mystic River, Lehane's only stand-alone novel to date, is a power-packed, extremely intense story about love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, evil and goodness, reason and passion, and more --indeed, a veritable work of near epic proportions.

Read excerptMystic River's central story evolves around the brutal murder of Katie Marcus, the 19-year-old daughter of Jimmy Marcus. The murder reunites Jimmy with two boyhood buddies, Sean Devine and Dave Boyle. Their previous significant encounter was 25 years earlier, when they were all eleven-year-old kids. Jimmy and Sean had gotten into a fight in the middle of the street. A car suddenly appears and stops. The two men in the car claim to be policemen, scold Jimmy and Sean for fighting, and order Dave to get into the car, purportedly to take him home to his mother. Dave was not seen again for four days. The men were sexual predators.

Twenty-five years later, Jimmy is an ex-con, and Sean is a state trooper, who is eventually assigned to investigate Katie's murder. Dave Boyle is still a misfit, as he was as a youngster, when he could not make friends on his own and only got to hang with Sean and Jimmy by tagging along with Jimmy. At age 36, Dave's life's only highlight was his three years as the star shortstop of his high school baseball team. Although married to a fine woman and with a young son he adores, Dave has trouble holding down a job and struggles with a "dark side" resulting from his abduction at 11. He is tormented by demons, which tempt him to commit the same perversity done to him versus countering forces that urge him to destroy pedophiles, like the two who subjected him to marathon molestations. Dave is also the prime suspect in Katie's murder.

The action takes place in the fictional town of East Buckingham, located outside of Boston, the setting of all of Lehane's books. Jimmy and Dave are both from the Flats neighborhood of East Buckingham, whereas Sean is from the Point. Both sections are said to be working class neighborhoods, "But people in the Point owned. People in the Flats rented." It follows from this that Sean would be destined to have a career in law enforcement having a vested interest in upholding law and order to protect the fruits resulting from his family's steady work and income. On the other hand, being from the Flats, where people can't afford to buy their residences mostly due to chronic unemployment, which results in familial and personal disintegration on a level not found in the Point, it was not startling for Jimmy Marcus to pursue a life of crime. And Jimmy had been a criminal mastermind. By the age of 17 ("before he could legally drink"), Jimmy was running his own crew of criminals, and his brilliant attention to detail earned him the respect of fellow thieves and police alike. He was one of the best in a neighborhood with a "hall of fame roster of second story guys." A cop who followed his career stated that while still a teenager Jimmy's crew was responsible for 16 major heists, all brilliantly conceived and carried out, with underage Jimmy capable of breaking security codes that 40 year old pros could not touch.

Jimmy's criminal career came to an abrupt end at the age of 22. A former member of his crew ratted on him in exchange for walking from a federal rap. Jimmy ended up in jail for two years. Two months before his release, Jimmy's first wife, Marta, whom he married at 17, died from cancer, leaving Jimmy alone with a 5-year-old daughter. Being apart those two critical years, Jimmy and Katie hardly knew each other and both were scared of the prospect of having to live together. Determined to raise his daughter responsibly, Jimmy vowed to go straight for Katie's sake, and as of the time of her killing, he succeeded. During those 14 years, he married Annabeth Savage, and they had two daughters of their own. At the time of Katie's murder, Jimmy was a happily married father of three daughters whom he loved and who loved him, and he supported his family with the grocery store he owned.

At age 19, Katie Marcus had been blossoming into adult womanhood. She is in love with Brendan Harris. Jimmy forbids her from having anything to do with him, for reasons that are inexplicable to both Katie and Brendan (and also to the reader for much of the book). Although she loves her father deeply, she nevertheless plans to run away with Brendan to Las Vegas to get married. To celebrate her new life away from the Flats, on the night before the planned elopement, Katie and two friends go bar hopping. After a night of heavy drinking and innocent carrying on, Katie drops off her friends. She is then stopped by someone she apparently knows, is forced from her car, shot at, beaten, chased through a park and brutally and viciously slain by one or more mysterious perpetrators said to have been motivated by "psycho rage." The killing gets major press coverage and there is tremendous pressure on the police to quickly solve it. As the park where Katie's dead body was found is within the jurisdiction of the state, it is the state troopers' case to solve. And it is assigned to Sean Devine.

Although well respected for his investigative skills and intuition, Sean's personal and professional lives are unraveling at the time of Katie's murder. His wife has left him with her newborn daughter, of an uncertain father, and Sean is just returning from a suspension without pay for using his police connections to harass a fellow Sean suspected of having an affair with his wife.

Sean has a number of suspects to investigate. They include Bobby O'Donnell, a gangster wannabe and thug, who controls criminal activity within the Flats. There is also Brendan Harris who claims to have been home sleeping at the time of the murder. However, ballistics reveals that the gun used to kill Katie was the same gun used years earlier to hold up a nearby liquor store, which points back to Brendan.

Then, there is Dave Boyle, clearly the prime suspect, both to the reader and to the police. On the night of Katie's murder he returned home with blood all over himself and with an implausible explanation to his wife about a mugging. It is known that he ran into Katie in at least one of the bars she visited, and it may have been him seen sitting in a car outside the last bar she was at just before she was killed. We also know that Dave is hiding something from his wife, from Jimmy and from Sean. Could it have been Katie's murder? Very possible, for in response to a direct question from his wife, he does not provide a straight answer and gives her (and the reader) the strong impression that it is more likely yes than no. The response is so ambiguous and the external evidence so inconclusive that the reader can never be sure of Dave's guilt, nor can the reader be quite certain whether pathetic Dave is deserving of contempt or pity.

Lehane keeps the reader on edge and wondering until the end of the book as to the identity of Katie's murderer. The story is peppered with hints that point to who killed Katie, but unless a reader goes back and scrutinizes the action with extreme care, those clues are easily overlooked.

There are a number of key concepts raised by Lehane through the different characters. Jimmy talks about how the small events in our lives sometimes govern the direction our lives take. "There are threads. You pull one and everything else is affected." Jimmy theorizes, for example, that had he, instead of Dave, had gotten into the molesters' car when he was 11, he would have turned out differently than he did and he never would have had the nerve to approach gorgeous Marta at age 16, never would have married her, and never would he have had Katie, who in turn never would have been murdered. Jimmy even had the disturbing feeling that something he had done was somehow responsible for Katie's death. Without giving away the ending, his premonition did prove correct.

Then, there is a consideration voiced by Jimmy's second wife, Annabeth, who, though her role is really secondary, emerges as one of the more interesting characters in Mystic River. Before she and Jimmy married, she questioned whether Jimmy really could go straight, as she thought that criminality was "in the blood." Jimmy responded that he couldn't care whether it was or not; he just knew that he could not risk going to jail again, for he feared Katie would otherwise become a ward of the state. By Jimmy's reaction to his daughter's murder, the reader would not be so sure that Annabeth was wrong.

Much needs to remain unsaid about Mystic River, both for the sake of brevity and in order not to ruin the book for its potential readers. Suffice it to say that Lehane's work is an intense, gripping and riveting work of fiction. This is not just your traditional murder mystery where a victim the reader hardly knows gets killed and then the reader is impressed by how cleverly the hero solves the mystery. In Mystic River, we know Katie Marcus and we know what she means particularly to Jimmy Marcus, and Lehane makes us literally feel his despondency and devastation over the murder of his daughter, to whom he had dedicated his life. Unlike the traditional crime/suspense/mystery novel, there is reflected in his work the reality that things are not happy-ever-after once the murder is solved. In Mystic River, the impact of Katie Marcus' murder is not diminished at all by the capture of the murderer, the sorrow and the pain of those affected reverberates nonetheless. There is a palpable, visceral feeling that is inescapable even for the reader, so engaging and engrossing is Lehane's story and his manner of telling it.

Mystic River has been made into a motion picture, directed by Clint Eastwood. Reports are that the release date is scheduled for October 2003. Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins play Jimmy Marcus, Sean Devine and Dave Boyle, respectively. Laurence Fishburne also stars in the film as Sean's partner, Whitey Powers, who in the book is a crusty police veteran. One should not forego reading the book for the sake of the movie. There is no assurance that the movie will be able to recreate the mesmerizing power of Lehane's original work. If done right, however, Eastwood's movie should solidify and broaden Lehane's reputation as one of the finest mystery writers of this generation.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 688 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Mystic River at

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Bibliography: (with links to

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About the Author:

Dennis LehaneDennis Lehane was born and raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He started writing mysteries during his fine-writing studies at Eckerd College and Florida International University and those efforts led to his first novel, published when he was 25. He currently lives in Boston with his wife, Sheila. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014