American Eye

Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to Shots a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....

It's been twelve years since Patrick Kenzie found Amanda McCready, returned the four year old to her negligent mother, saw her kidnappers jailed, and broke up with Angie Gennaro. Patrick and Angie got back together, and now have a daughter of their own. Angie's more or less out of the private eye business, studying to work with Downs Syndrome children, and Patrick's trying to get a staff job being perpetually dangled in front of him by a big-time agency, so he'll do the kind of work for the kind of people he despises. And then Amanda, now 16, goes missing again, and her aunt Beatrice knows how to appeal to the guilt Patrick feels.

Dennis Lehane returned to Kenzie and Gennaro after a ten year hiatus that saw the huge jump forward of Mystic River, which of course rode the success of Clint Eastwood's film. He followed that up with Shutter Island, a daring and offbeat novel rather than one designed to capitalise on Mystic Rivers' success. That one became a Martin Scorsese film, and he went on to script for The Wire, so there was little predicting his next book, the remarkable historical novel The Given Day. When I interviewed Lehane about The Given Day, we talked about the return of Kenzie and Gennaro, and Lehane explained it simply: 'he (Patrick) hadn't talked to me for ten years, and then all of a sudden I heard his voice in my head'. I asked if the voice her heard was Casey Affleck's, who had played Patrick in his brother Ben's faithful adaptation of the Amanda story, Gone Baby Gone. He said 'no, but it's funny, because Casey wasn't anything like I'd pictured Patrick, but I can't get him out of my mind'. (You can read the whole interview at http://irresistibletargets.blogspot,com)

To an extent, that's a problem with Moonlight Mile, because it's hard now to separate Affleck's protean ability to enter a character and reflect his inner workings from the Patrick we may have imagined. If anything he adds depth, and Lehane himself was scared by the task. 'Do I still have that looseness,' he wondered. 'They had an ignorance about them, and I wonder if I can recapture that now that I've flirted with self-importance.'

Patrick remains an unlikely detective hero. His world sometimes seems to be an extension of high school, where he was not quite tough or cool enough to be successful, or become a target, but just cool and smart enough to be a mark. And trying to locate Amanda quickly throws him in over his head, because her mother Helene and Helene's latest loser boyfried are tied in with the Russian mob, and a hit man named Yefim who's got almost as funny a line of ironic patter as Patrick. Of course Patrick finds Amanda, he's too good and dogged not to, and everything gets far more complicated than he could have imagined. Which is what happened in Gone Baby Gone, and as in that book Patrick needs to make a decision. But this time the decision is informed by his added age, his added responsibility as a father, and his exposure to the results of his moral decision twelve years earlier.

Lehane does a nice job of picking up his characters and allowing them their changes. He's as sharp as ever; Patrick remains a knowing-smart ass; 'I see a future for you in self-help,' he says to a drug-addled youth counselor who's made some bad decisions. At times it seems this book is more consciously funny than its predecessors, but that may be because it is more informed by the world around Kenzie and Gennaro; the concerns of Mystic River, The Wire, and The Given Day are never far away. Lehane's remarkably straight-forward about society's failures; a dog-walking woman in western Massachusetts launches into a fantastic diatribe against the perverted values of our education system that could have come right out of The Wire. And, if I may be indulged one pedantic quibble, his sense of geography remains odd; in the Given Day a train took an impossible route to New York; in Moonlight Mile there's a house in western Mass 'south of the New York border', which is weird because the border runs almost due north-south!

There is almost an inevitability to the denouement, and Patrick in particular is again forced into decisions that make him question how best he can be true both to himself and those he loves. And follow the responsibilities of society as well. He's helped a bit by a twist which some may see coming; but it's no small task, just as revisiting a successful series more than decade later wasn't. Lehane has written the kind of comeback novel any writer would admire, he has questioned his characters, and let them find their own way. It's another fine achievement.

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane Little Brown, £15.99 ISBN 9781408703137

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