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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In awe of Dennis Lehane

I repeat, I am totally in awe of Dennis Lehane.  

Which means that I am ashamed to say that I discovered him when I picked up one of his books in a bargain bin -- and only bought it because the bargain was five books for thirty dollars, and I could find only four authors in the bin I could trust to deliver a good yarn.  This title, A Drink Before the War, looked promising, so I added it to the other four. 

It is billed on the jacket as "A Kenzie and Gennaro Thriller," so I expected a private detective partnership in the Batman and Robin mode, which was exactly what I got -- except that this pair of tough private eyes is not quite the same as anything I have ever encountered in the genre before. Kenzie has a soft heart under the given granite exterior, and though he is in love with the beautiful Gennaro of the melting caramel eyes, he gets utterly nowhere, because she is in love with her husband ... who beats her.  Kenzie has hospitalized him at least once, but it doesn't make any difference. 

An unusual background, do you not agree?

The plot is one of those complicated political ones, which tangles and unravels after Kenzie and Gennaro are given the job of tracking down Jenna Angeline, a black cleaning woman who has stolen confidential papers from the State House in Boston.  Staying alive is the hard part, in a hard-driven story that zips from extortion to gangs to bombed out ghettos to child prostitution.  As the title promises, it all leads to all-out war.

All in all, a page-turner. 

I sallied out eagerly in search of another Dennis Lehane -- and found Shutter Island.   Did it turn out to be another episode in the action-packed life of the Kenzie-Gennaro duo?  No, it did not.

Instead, I found myself racing breathheld through one of the most brilliant psychological mysteries I have ever read, grippingly and scintillatingly written.  I got to the end, turned back to the beginning, and read it again -- that is just how good it is.  The only other time that has happened to me with a book in this genre is Robert Cormier's equally spellbinding I am the Cheese.

Two US Marshalls are summoned to Shutter Island, a stormswept island off the Massachusetts coast that is the site of a particularly grim mental institution -- a place that houses the most violent and vicious of insane murderers, where the danger from the inmates is so great that the patients are outnumbered by the guards.  One of the murderers has vanished from her locked room . . . and a hurricane descends, isolating the island and its mentally tortured inhabitants, along with panicked guards, enigmatic doctors, and the two bewildered marshalls.

But is that a true summation of the situation?  No.  For nothing on Shutter Island is quite what it seems ...

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