I could feel the tension. When Johnny Temple, former bassist for the indie rock band Girls Against Boys, and founder and publisher of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, introduced author Dennis Lehane at the 2010 Miami Book Fair International, it was clear that something was awry.
Lehane was there to discuss Boston Noir, the then latest volume of Akashic’s “Noir” series, which spans the globe in search of authors and stories within the genre. Prominent authors gather tales set in their home cities and, as designated editors, work with contributing authors to compile final anthologies. Each editor also includes one of his own original stories, since name recognition helps book sales.
Lehane was part of a panel of “Noir” editors, each charged with a different city, who were to discuss the process of putting together their respective books. Temple introduced the panel, providing glowing compliments for the work of Les Standiford (Miami Noir), Denise Hamilton (Los Angeles Noir), S. J. Rozan (Bronx Noir), and Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Mexico City Noir). When he reached Lehane, however, his tone changed. Although Lehane was by far the most recognizable name on the panel, Temple was less than effusive in his praise of Lehane’s work.
Lehane admitted during the panel presentation that he was editor of Boston Noir in name only. Most of the editing was done by Temple, himself, effectively forced upon him by Lehane’s laissez faire approach and inability to meet deadlines. His most significant contributions to the book were writing an original story and lending his name to the project.
Lehane’s commitment to Boston Noir and adherence to deadlines may certainly be questioned, but not the quality of his writing. He is a gifted writer, one of the finest in crime fiction. His crisp, sharp dialogue evokes the sounds of Boston’s underclass, while his vivid storytelling has readers reliving scenes long after the books are closed.
Since 2003 he has become a Hollywood favorite. It was then that director Clint Eastwood released the cinematic version of his 2001 novel Mystic River. The film, one of the year’s best, earned critical acclaim and Academy Awards for actors Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. The storyline deals with child abuse, friendship, tragedy, redemption and revenge. Like most of Lehane’s work, it is set in and around Boston and is filled with disturbing and lasting imagery, which Eastwood’s film worked hard to capture.
In 2010, another big-name director brought his work to the big screen. This time, it was Martin Scorsese, creator of such classics as Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Raging Bull, who adapted Lehane’s compelling, yet flawed 2003 novel, Shutter Island. The story represented a departure for Lehane. He abandoned the streets of Boston to tell the tale of two U.S. Marshals searching for a woman who mysteriously vanished from an island institution for the criminally insane. The film is not among Scorsese’s best, yet it may be said that even “Scorsese light” is better than most. The same may also be said of Lehane. While his attempt at gothic storytelling only partly succeeded, his writing remained clean, concise and evocative.
Lehane has been reluctant to personally turn his novels into screenplays, claiming that he has no desire to “operate” on his own child. His introduction to Hollywood, however, led to his joining the writing staff of the critically acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, for its third season in 2004, at the suggestion of his friend and fellow writer, George Pelecanos.
Some of Lehane’s best writing may have occurred before he commenced his dalliance with director-auteurs. From 1994 through 1999, he penned five crime novels which are among the genre’s best of the past twenty years. The works, A Drink Before the War (1994), Darkness Take My Hand (1996), Sacred (1997), Gone, Baby, Gone (1998) and Prayers for Rain (1999), evolve around protagonists Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, both raised on the streets of Boston and dealing with harsh realities of the present while fending off ghosts of the past. The best of the series is the second, Darkness Take My Hand. Its closing scenes are possibly Lehane’s most memorable and disturbing. Of the five, only Gone, Baby, Gone (2007) has become a film, a surprisingly good adaptation by director Ben Affleck.
Lehane often hinted that he would never revisit the world of Kenzie and Gennaro, claiming that he had put those characters through much pain and hardship, and preferred to let them live the rest of their fictional lives in peace. He has apparently reconsidered. A new Kenzie/Gennaro novel, the first in eleven years, Moonlight Mile, will be released in November.
Lehane’s most recent novel, The Given Day (2008), is his first attempt at historical fiction. Set in 1918 Boston and spanning a period of one year, the story centers around a family enmeshed in the life and politics of the time, and deals with such events as the end of World War I, the Boston police strike, and the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. It is not Lehane’s best work, but it is ambitious, well written and entertaining.
Lehane has indicated that The Given Day is the first of several historical novels he intends to write, all set in Boston at different periods. He cannot predict when the second volume of this series will be completed since, as he demonstrated in his dealings with Johnny Temple, he is not very good with deadlines. Some readers will bemoan the fact that his apparent lack of discipline will lead to long gaps between books. However, if his coming novels are as good as his past, the wait will be rewarded.