Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River

Dennis Lehane’s novels may be shelved in the crime section, but what you begin to sense as you read his fiction is that many of his overarching concerns – in family, in community, and in how people use these things to define themselves and their decisions – would be at home in the “literary fiction” genre. To point this out isn’t to suggest that literary fiction is “better” than crime novels, but rather to say that Lehane is an extraordinary writer producing works that are at once accessible, plot-driven, and thought-provoking.

Mystic River is his best novel to date. Hand this one to anyone who speaks about genre fiction with their nose in the air and you’ll have a convert to the world of mass market paperbacks. Mystic River is as well-plotted as any of Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro detective novels, but because he follows his three main characters from youth he is able to explore more deeply those issues of community that have appeared in his other works.

Mystic River opens in 1975, with three friends who will in time be divided by community (who’s from the Point? who’s from the Flats?), differences of personality, and what happens when one of them, Dave Boyle, gets into a car driven by “policemen” who are in fact child molesters. After Dave escapes his captors, we leave them until 2000. All three remain in Boston: Dave, married with a child; Sean, a police officer separated from his wife; and Jimmy, an ex-con whose daughter is murdered the same night Dave comes home to his wife covered in blood, claiming to have been mugged.

Lehane’s narrative loops us back in history, pointing to the ways long-ago events (not just the day Dave got into the car when the other two boys wouldn’t, but Jimmy’s two-year sentence for robbery and what got him there) color seemingly unrelated moments in the present. Near novel’s end Jimmy reflects on the karmic nature of his daughter’s death, how her seemingly random murder can in some way be viewed as the only natural response to something Jimmy did shortly after his long-ago release from prison.

Lehane’s skill lies not only in carefully plotting so that these loopings through time and history read as naturally as actual events, but in fully exploring his characters’ motivations and the ways they’ve been formed. There’s Dave, who initially seems not greatly affected by his molestation as an eleven-year-old, but who, as novel progresses, reveals himself to be a scarred and flawed man seeking some form of redemption; Sean, who is unable to let go of his pride to find a way to get back the wife who left him a year earlier, and who has to investigate the lives of two childhood friends; and Jimmy, whose grief over his daughter’s death is coupled with a desire for some revenge, as well as a redemption for his community.

After Jimmy’s daughter, Katie, is found murdered after a night out, the police speak to Dave Boyle only because he happened to be in one of the bars she visited with her friends. Long before Jimmy begins to suspect that Dave was involved in Katie’s murder, Lehane reveals the ways Dave’s seeing Katie is painful, somehow wrong, to Jimmy:

It was this knowledge – that someone other than Jimmy possessed an image of Katie that postdated Jimmy’s own – that had finally allowed him to weep in the first place. (263)

Although we see Jimmy’s grief for his daughter, it’s the married couples that gain most of Lehane’s attention, and where we see the most powerful relationships taking place. Jimmy and Annabeth compare themselves to Dave and his wife, Celeste; they are able to mark themselves as different, better, than the other couple, because of the strength of their belief in one another.

No character in Mystic River is entirely clean or free of blame in either Katie’s death or Dave Boyle’s story. Lehane explores their degrees of guilt without judgement, and while the characters pass judgement on one another there is little temptation for the reader to do the same. Lehane writes, as ever, about deeply flawed individuals who are trying to somehow better themselves and their worlds. Lehane suggests, at the same moment, that there is little possibility of his characters escaping their pasts and their communities, and that these ties and faults are what make them worth knowing.


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This book is singlehandedly responsible for making me pick up a pen and write.In Lehane’s books, there’s always more to the plot than the crime. You feel its weights on many lives and you can retrace how it came to this. It’s a very delicate and subtle way to write about horrible things.

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre (@BenoitLelievre)

Yes – that’s what always amazes me about his writing, the way that the crime is always explored so fully. Every time I read one of his books I’m caught somewhere between mute amazement (why I’ve never tried to review one of his novels before) and wanting to be able to write as well as he does.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

This is a great review and it you’re so right that this book could get genre-fiction snobs to take another look. So long as you can get them to actually pick up the book. I remember trying to get a friend to read it but he turned his nose up at mass market paperbacks. I’m going to direct him here. You’re also making me want to read this again.

Comment by Alley Rivers (@alleyecarina)

I wrote this review mostly because one of my friends made fun of me, a little, for reading a “mass-market paperback.” Pretty sure that anyone who reads Lehane will find themselves wanting to explore more of the world of those mass-market editions…that’s what happened to me, anyway.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

You make an important point about genre fiction musing with literary fiction. One of the qualities I always admired in genre writers was their skillful focus on plot. When I was completing my creative writing degree I always felt more comfortable with character and description, while plot was bloody difficult (and rather essential). I’d love to see how this author handles the intricacies of character development while at the same time telling a great yarn. Thanks for the recommendation!

Comment by Erin

I feel the same way. I seem incapable of writing anything with a plot, let alone a believable one. It’s really amazing to me how Lehane is able to manage character and plot development at the same time. I’d love if he did a writing course, just so I could sit in front of him and ask, “HOW DO YOU DO IT?”

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

This sounds fantastic. Mystic River has been on my radar but I haven’t super interested in reading it until I read your review.

Comment by Brenna (@LitMusings)

Awesome! I hope you get a chance to read it soon, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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