Books by Dennis Lehane
Dennis Lehane is an engaging man, given to laughter, yet with turns of phrase and a tendency to make impatient, flat statements that hint, along with a South Boston accent, at his upbringing in a pretty tough neighborhood. A master's of fine arts program in creative writing (at Florida International University) honed his skills as a short-story author, yet he has made his name as a novelist, returning to his blue-collar roots for the material that has fueled a five-installment crime fiction series. His first book, A Drink Before the War (1994), won a Shamus Award for Best First Novel. His latest, Prayers for Rain, is among the titles that First Mystery Fan Bill Clinton has with him this week on his summer vacation.
The 33-year-old Lehane writes satisfyingly complex and disturbingly violent crime fiction that often crosses into thriller territory. These are not, however, cheap thrills. Even in their goriest moments, his books are grounded in rich, real-life detail. Lehane knows Boston and its denizens, and he captures the city's subcultures beautifully -- from the hushed refinement of the old-money suburbs to the grittiness of tacky motels and bail-bond agencies.
His main characters, private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, transcend crime fiction stereotypes. At first glance, Kenzie is a classic hard-boiled detective, an idealistic man who feels trapped and angry -- perhaps because of emotional scars left by his brutal father. But he is no rootless loner. He still lives and works in the neighborhood (the Irish stronghold of Dorchester) where he grew up alongside Angie and Bubba Rogowski, their larger-than-life sidekick and hit-man.
Angie is practical, passionate and somewhat inscrutable. She's tough and courageous in the pursuit of homicidal psychopaths and twisted minds. But in her private life, she waffles. Angie has struggled for years to break free from an abusive marriage and has mixed feelings about her brief romantic relationship with Kenzie.
Lehane has no background in police work or private investigation and is not particularly interested in the tradition of the police procedural. His books are fiction in every sense of the word. They are set in a down-at-heel Irish neighborhood that no longer exists quite as Lehane portrays it and his characters can wreak more violence in one chapter than the real city of Boston is likely to see in a year. Most of these stories feature an evil mastermind whom Kenzie and Angie must outwit and overpower. Lehane is eager to point out the similarity between the role of the demoniacal mastermind and his own role as the author.
Lehane and his wife Sheila were in Seattle recently for a friend's wedding. He and I met for this interview in the bar of the downtown hotel where he was staying; he'd already established that it was one of the few locations in generally smoke-free Seattle where he could light up a cigarette.
Karen G. Anderson: How has your main character, Patrick Kenzie, developed over time?
Dennis Lehane: It's weird. The trajectory of most of the recurring characters in the books has been upward -- their lives have gotten better, Angie's particularly. They've become happier, while Patrick has gone the opposite way. He's wearier, and less in control of his demons than he was in the first book. I have no idea where it's going to take him. It's been truly organic. It's just come from the books, from his character sort of dictating things for me. There's never been any sort of plan for it to turn out that way.
Obviously, the attitude that you take into a third book or a fourth book is a lot different from the one that you had when writing your first book. You're a different person at that point. How has your relationship with Kenzie as a character changed? Do you ever resent him? Are you ever tired of him? Do you ever want to rescue him and make things really good for him?
No. From the beginning, I was really playing with archetype with Patrick: the hero with a thousand faces, the man in search of himself.
He's got to be affected by cases he's dealt with. I hate the sort of Starsky and Hutch syndrome -- you know, where Starsky will have a girlfriend and she'll get blown away at the end of one episode, and then in the next episode he's got a new girlfriend, and he's doing fine. I hate that sense of there being no effect on the characters.
With these books, the books that come before truly affect the book you're reading now. And I don't know how much more Patrick can go through.
It's very difficult for the reader to picture Kenzie. I can see Angie, particularly in Prayers for Rain, when she changed her appearance...
I don't know a man alive who likes that moment that most women go through in their late 20s or early 30s where they cut their hair. Men like long hair -- most men I know.
Every woman does it, and it's a depressing moment. I'll give you an example from pop culture: I was very unhappy when [singer] Cheryl Crow cut her hair. So much of her appeal was this sense of her just a fun-loving girl who could hang with the guys. There's that line from her song: "I like a beer buzz in the morning." That's the girl we've all met and shot pool with. The moment she cuts her hair, she's an adult.
But why is it that I can visualize Angie, and even Bubba Rogowski, but I can never really see Kenzie?
I never describe him. There are hints -- other people will mention something about him. The only two things I'm sure of that are in there: the color of his eyes and the texture of his hair. And he's had a beard since the second book.
What do you think the effect of that is on the reader, not being able to visualize Kenzie?
I think it's a good effect. You can make him whatever you want. He can look like whatever you want him to look like. You are seeing through his eyes.
Your books are pretty scary. That's a trend that we're seeing with a lot of mystery writers who are moving towards the thriller genre, or going back and forth between the two. But unlike many of the other people who are doing this thriller stuff, you have a lot of humor in your books. I think particularly of the scene in Prayers for Rain, in which there's a cookout at a mobster's house and you have a riff about Elvis Presley being an Italian goomba. That was hysterical. And Bubba Rogowski getting romantically involved with a lawyer in the same book was another kind of humor. What made you decide to put so much of humor in a novel that has people terrified in the next chapter?
It's very strange. I used to be a short-fiction writer, and that's really where I thought I'd end up. I found that I could write two kinds of short stories: I could write very absurd, kind of surrealistic, funny stories; or I could write very dark, realistic -- hyper-realistic -- stories. I was never happy with that, because I couldn't meld the two. And my view of life is that it's both.
The detective genre, the people I read growing up -- Hammett and Robert Parker, Robert Crais -- tended to have both [kinds of scenes in their books]. Chandler could be very funny. When I first started playing around with my first novel, I was just amazed how easily humor just slid in.... There's just something about the genre that allows for that -- the tradition of the wise-ass private investigator, certainly. And I found that a lot of the writers I love the most tend to write very dark things, but they can also make me laugh out loud, very suddenly. It's a very urban sense of humor. It comes from the darkness; it's gallows humor.
Richard Price [the author of Freedomland], probably one of my favorite writers, can make me laugh out loud with a line of dialogue that a lot of people probably wouldn't laugh at. I think it's that East Coast sense of humor, the way a word is spun.
In Prayers for Rain, you have Bubba wrapping up the leftover turkey that has the glass in it, and he says, "I'll pick it out." That, to me, is funny because I can see people I know saying that: "I'll pick it out."
Bubba Rogowski is an amazing character. Is he based on anybody real?
No. I knew some guys growing up who might have had a couple of screws loose. But he just sorta showed up in the first book. It was such a discovery. You're just writing and all of a sudden these people are popping in and they become your cast.
Do you have plans for a sixth Kenzie book?
Yeah, they're loose plans. I'm not sure what will be my next book. I haven't decided yet.... I'm at a point now where it might be judicious to take a bit of a break. I've done five books, [and my characters] have been beat up a lot; they've had a lot of big cases. You want to ground these books in as much realism as you can. Because what's inherent in the whole genre is that it's unrealistic: Private eyes don't do that sort of stuff.
I wanted to ask you about that. A lot of your plots revolve around an elaborate mastermind who stays at a distance and sets up a chain of events, whether it's the kindly old barkeeper in Darkness Take My Hand or the two fellows with the bizarre relationship in Prayers for Rain. They're setting up this chain of events, and the whole plot relies on it. How to you keep that kind of setup from getting out of the realm of believability?
I don't know that I do. I don't know about this question of believability -- when did we come to expect believability of genre writing? Does anybody believe that the Three Musketeers could have actually had all those adventures? That's what fiction is. If there was that much bloodshed in the House of Hamlet, they would have shut things down around Act Three.
That's drama. My friend, my teacher, James Hall [author of Under Cover of Daylight and Body Language] said that all books are about writing, and to some extent, when you're sitting there trying to create this plot, you, in a way, are the mastermind. So my books become books about masterminds creating plots. That's a little postmodern, but I think there is a lot to it.
All detective novels have a certain amount of deception going on in them. Your books have extremely deceptive characters. Characters who you would never suspect will turn out to be more than guilty -- they turn out to be the embodiment of evil. What does this say about people and trust? Every time someone trusts someone in these books, something terrible happens.
Except of course, [when they trust] one of the central characters. Yes, that's something that goes back, way back, in all my work, in my 50 short stories. There's a sense that, ultimately, you can't know anyone. That's sort of the fascination and the horror of life. You can't truly know anyone. You hear the stories in the press, that somebody does something bad, and people say, "No! He couldn't have done that. He's my boy, my boy wouldn't have done that." "He's my husband, my husband wouldn't have done that." Well, guess what? He did.
There's a certain unknowability in the human condition. That's what creates conflict, and it's also what creates mysteries. I mean, if everyone is what they seem in a mystery, there's no mystery.
Isn't that unknowability a hallmark of the urban life? Say you live in a small town, and sure, you don't know somebody, but you can get a pretty good idea. But in the city most of your experiences are with strange people. Like in that café scene in Prayers for Rain, where that jerk is trying to borrow a chair from Kenzie's table. The reader is thinking about Kenzie's problems with his ex-girlfriend. You lull the reader into a feeling of security that turns out to be completely false.
I loved the chair scene. That, to me, is the urban terror. That moment when someone steps out -- and you realize that they've been there all along. You're in a city, you're surrounded by people, and then there's that person who hones in on you and does something completely unreasonable. And all of a sudden they're in your life.
Don DeLillo has this great scene in his book Players, where a woman is crossing the street and she locks eyes, just by chance, with a man sitting in a car. It is very obvious that the man is then going to drive somewhere and masturbate... and that experience, which lasts all of a quarter-second, is something that has now soiled her, and she carries that man with her. That is the odd relationship of living in a big city.
What's the city that you call Boston in your books? Is it the Boston of the 1960s and 70s when you were growing up. Is it Boston today?
It's a fictitious Boston. The Dorchester I describe is really the Dorchester of the 60s and 70s right into the early 80s. It's the Dorchester I grew up in. When I went away, I wrote about it from a sort of homesickness. And then I got back and saw how much the landscape had changed. My family doesn't live there any more. But I loved writing about that world; I was very comfortable with it. So even though it isn't there any more, or at least, not specifically where I write about it, it's a wonderful world to play with.
Everyone thinks Boston, based on my books, is so violent. When I tell them it's the safest metropolitan area of its size in the country they ask me, "Then why do so many bad things happen in your books?"
Bad things happen in suspense novels. That's why.
Are there other writers using the Boston setting who have influenced you? George V. Higgins? Edwin O'Connor?
I loved The Last Hurrah and I loved The Edge of Sadness [both by O'Connor]. The biggest influence, Boston-wise, was [Robert B.] Parker. But there're a lot of Massachusetts writers I like a lot, such as Andre Dubus, the late short-story writer. Higgins I just never read much; I read The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and that was it.
My favorite writers? It's weird to point to influences. The only influence I see is Graham Greene. Richard Price, Pete Dexter, William Kennedy -- those are my favorite writers.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I wrote since I was 8. When I was 20, I realized I was just lousy at everything else; I had dropped out of two colleges. That's when I said, well this is really the only thing I'm good at, so I might as well take it seriously, and I went off to major in it. Writing was just not considered a viable option where I came from, so it took me time to get there. Once I did, there was -- honest to God -- no turning back.
Have you worked at jobs other than writing?
Oh yeah, I've had a million jobs. But from the moment I said I was going to take this seriously, there was no other career track. I was not going to use writing for advertising or journalism. I would load trucks, tend bar, do whatever it took. From the moment I took my first writing workshop, I was a writer. Whether I got published or not was really irrelevant. Whether I got good was what mattered.
The issues of God and church and faith appear a lot in your books -- not in connection with crime, but in a very serious way. Kenzie's office is in a former church tower and Angie is a practicing Catholic.
Yes, that's something I love about Angie. She's very religious. There are scenes throughout the books [that remind us of this fact]. Once she gives a FBI agent a hard time for showing disrespect to the church. She always dresses up for church. I like that about her. I respect any belief people have that's not hurting someone else. If you have faith, it's something we should respect, not denigrate or tear down.
A lot of women detectives in fiction come across as angry, pissed off. Angie doesn't come at her work with an attitude. I get the feeling that she became an investigator because it's a pretty lucrative thing to do if you're blue collar.
That was one of few conscious decisions I made when I went into the genre. I decided, I do not want the people to be veterans of any war, I don't want them to know some sort of obscure Eastern kung fu philosophy that'll help them whoop ass. I want them to be regular, vulnerable people. They're not braver than most people, but they stick with it.
There's a scene in Darkness Take My Hand that a friend of mine tried to convince me to take out. It's where Patrick is sitting outside of the bar and he's figured out the serial killer is going to show up, and he's terrified. They're about to step into the mouth of the lion. And he's terrified, he's almost paralyzed with fear. And my friend said, "That's not the tradition." And I said, "I don't give a shit what the tradition is. A real guy, going in to face off against a serial killer, would want to be anywhere but there."
That's what I like about these books. These are just regular folks who have been in 50 more gun battles than most people. Angie, if it came to a fight, hand-to-hand combat with a man, she'd lose. She's a small woman. But she'd shoot him before he got to her. That's the strength of her.
I'm going to go back to something you said: "When I chose the genre." Isn't it unusual for someone to come to the genre by the route of a creative-writing course of study? Did you feel you were closing some doors when you opened that one?
When I wrote the first book [A Drink Before the War], I just wanted to have a little fun. I'd always loved to read mysteries. And what did you know, it sells. I went off to graduate school while it was being submitted, and went back to short fiction. But I found myself fiddling with passages that became Darkness Take My Hand.
I felt like I didn't have, at the time, a "serious literary novel" in me. Because I didn't know anything. I was 25 when I wrote the first draft of A Drink Before the War.
But I wanted to write a novel, and the cool thing about mysteries is that what's absolutely built into a mystery is plot... and you can hang a million things on that plot, and put in a million ideas, and your own thematic concerns, your own philosophical concerns, whatever you want. But you have to follow that plot: Somebody has to get hurt, and that mystery has to get solved. And that was great for me, because I was very plot-loose as a writer. I just could've cared less about plot. So the plotting of these books was very good for me as a writer.
Let me put it this way about genre writing: Literary fiction as we know it, the great literary works, are untouchable. Genre cannot come close. That is a fact.
However, the lesser literary works are oftentimes not nearly as good as the best stuff in a genre. And I would much prefer to read a great genre book than a bad literary book, one of those self-absorbed, let's-tear-off-the-bandages-and-stare-at-our-scars kind of works, or a book that says, isn't life in middle-class America so vapid?
I remember talking with this guy in grad school and saying, "I can't read one more story set in a suburban kitchen in Greenwich, Connecticut, with two yuppies struggling with modern malaise." I mean, like, who gives a shit? If all books were like Toni Morrison's Sula, or Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, then, yes, that's all we should be doing. But unfortunately, that's not the case.
What, to you, constitutes outstanding contemporary writing in the crime fiction genre?
There's James Lee Burke's Black Cherry Blues, and James Ellroy's L.A. quartet. And George Pelecanos is probably my favorite living crime writer. I read his books, and ask myself why the hell isn't anybody writing about this? This is America today. His book The Sweet Forever is set in 1986, and he nailed the 80s. Why am I only seeing these characters in crime fiction? Why am I only seeing these kids from the ghettos from a realistic standpoint in here? Maybe Richard Price writes about it, but it's very rare.
There are some genre books out there that are truly elevated. James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss can stand on its own. You talk to any mystery writer of a certain generation, younger guys coming up, and they'll all say it's a masterpiece. That book says more about America in the 1970s than any book I can think of. It's obviously influenced by Chandler's The Long Goodbye, but what springs to mind is On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It's one of the great novels of the last 25 years. | August 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine.