Monday, December 24, 2007

Darkness, Take My Hand– a Review of the Detective Story/Murder Mystery by Dennis Lehane

I recently read and reviewed several books by Dennis Lehane, and, as part of the discussion, I referred to Lehane's outstanding and powerful Mystic River. With one slight bump in the road, I found my appreciation for these books growing rapidly. Darkness, Take My Hand (DTMH) is one of two extremely satisfying books I've enjoyed in the past week, courtesy of Mr. Lehane (one more review is in the works).

In DTMH, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro team up once again as private detectives working their old neighborhood of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and any other parts of the Boston area that their cases call for. The chemistry between these childhood friends is consistently engaging, perhaps in part because their lives remain a confused tangle of old love and restrained desire.

This particular tale starts out with a brief childhood memory: we see Kenzie and his abusive, fireman father sharing some “quality time” at the scene of a fire, a memory that haunts Kenzie decades later. Then comes the Prologue to DTMH, where we find Kenzie, alone, on a Christmas Eve. The doors to the Kenzie-Gennaro agency are shut, forever, and Angie is nowhere to be found.

Kenzie is, in fact, very much alone, mostly abandoned by his friends and seemingly without work, uncharacteristically spending his time watching the news on TV, taking in the latest tragedies like the rest of the city, doing little or nothing beyond feeling depressed, feeling considerable pain, and wondering why life had gone off the rails. How did this crisis come to pass? What is the origin of this particular pain he feels? The key to the answers unfolds as reminiscences begin and we go back in time, to the start of Kenzie's trouble.

What we find is a complex story, full of misdirection, full of tragedy, full of horror and full of guilt. It is a story that starts in a near-contemporary setting and also ends near the present, but which connects to the distant past in unusual, sad and frightful ways.

From a reader’s perspective, the large cast of characters and the nonlinear, practically exponential way in which the truth unfolds are no cause for concern– this is a very tightly written, brilliantly plotted book. There is no bloat, and, though we read of horrific crimes that multiply and proliferate, the story has its feet on the ground: there is no reason to suspend much disbelief in order to forge ahead through Lehane’s masterpiece.

In some crime fiction which will remain unidentified, I am truly annoyed by the way that an outstanding cast, developed and painted with realism, ends up confronting a villain of comic book proportions. I find myself reading such novels to keep up with the fascinating or appealing main characters and their lives, but without much interest in what we might call “the evil genius of the month. In DTMH, there are no such problems. The increasingly familiar main characters, and the new characters we meet along the way, inhabit a world that is not our world, but it feels like all it might take is a little bad luck to bring us to the office of Kenzie-Gennaro Investigations, asking for help.

The bad guys we meet in DTMH, the worse guys, and the worst guys of all, have all grown organically from the mean streets of small, homogeneous, closed communities that appear like satellites, or something less celestial, around big cities. The innocent victims that we come across have grown up in these same places, as have those who long since shed their innocence, making whatever peace they can with the lines they constantly cross.

In DTMH, we find out a lot about crossing the lines of normal, decent and lawful behavior: how frequent the transgressions are for some, who can manage to transgress under duress, who enjoys it and seeks out transgression, who can’t cross the lines at all, and who can’t live with themselves after taking steps, even necessary steps, that leave the boundaries of humanity behind.

You'll want to know how the characters fair as they tour the different levels of Hell, willingly or not, that DTMH provides. The guide for these tours is neither the Moon and St. Christopher nor Cicero, though these thoughts started me musing and free associating on Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dante, Virgil, The Band, and Virgil Caine for some reason (relevant musical/cultural references given below). Perhaps Mr. Lehane's excellent use of music and musical tastes as both backdrops to his stories and a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff amongst characters started me off on these tangents. Perhaps it was his stealth use of classical themes as old as Western Civilization, if not older. Probably (c), "all of the above".

Shooting Straight in the Dark Mary Chapin Carpenter- a great album. The Moon and St. Christopher is not a song to miss.

Selected Works (Penguin Classics) Cicero, orator and statesman

The Inferno No comment needed

The Aeneid (Penguin Classics) Some of what Virgil did before he showed up in the Inferno

Rock of Ages The Band sings of Virgil Caine (live)

The Band The Band in the Studio with Virgil Caine

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