Sunday, 24 July 2011

Moonlight Mile: Dennis Lehane

Back before Dennis Lehane was a big deal with three movie adaptations and a string of script credits for things like The Wire, I read his first detective novel A Drink Before the War, and enjoyed the general purpose smart-assery of his characters. Fairly rapid fire, he then chunked out four more books with the same main set of characters, and I read and enjoyed them all. I liked the fact that from one book to the next, the mental and physical wounds of the last book continued to nag at the narrator. Usually the characters in hardboiled detective fiction seem to go to rehab or something between books, reappearing in the next book in the pink of condition no matter what happened to them in the last one. Patrick Kenzie's lack of resilience kind of made up for things like Bubba Rogowski, Lehane's instant miracle fix for everything Kenzie wasn't personally up to, either because of weakness or nuisance-y scruples. Whenever Kenzie was overmatched, Rogowski would materialise and overkill the hell out of the problem. Whenever someone needed killing or getting the truth beaten out of them and Kenzie was having a crisis of conscience, Rogowski would show up and do the needful, so that Kenzie's angst level could be maintained at entertaining rather than crippling.

There are a couple of recurring tics in American noir. One is the Rogowski problem, which comes from wanting to make the hero someone the reader can identify with; do that, and you wind up needing some implausible manifestation of bad-assery who can pick up the slack when your all-too-human protagonist gets out of his depth. Another one is what I call the Chandler weakness; a lot of noirs read as though the writer has less of an idea what's going on than even his hero. Incidents and events pile up for a couple of hundred pages and then a resolution gets pulled out of the pile because the writer's run out of road and something needs to be done to wrap things up. When it's Chandler, you forgive it; he wrote like an angel and to some extent the point of his books was that life is confusing and messy, with the good guys doing well to get out of it alive, let alone victorious. When it's anyone less, you get picky about it; see my comments on Gentleman's Hour, which has the typical sloppy Chandler plot followed by an overly neat wrap up that depends on a lesser staple, the bad guy who owes the hero a favour.

In Moonlight Mile, Lehane's back with Kenzie and Gennaro, and inevitably Rogowski, after an eleven year break. In the meantime Lehane's been writing more serious (and less fun) books and making real money. Kenzie and Gennaro have got married, had a kid, and started to run out of cash. Much of the book is preoccupied with the impact of the collapsing US economy, Lehane having always been a writer who is preoccupied with the larger political problems of the world as much as with his characters. I still can't completely figure out how much of the restless anger in Kenzie's narration of the books is Lehane himself and how much is Lehane trying to flesh out an irritable character by letting us see what irritates him.

Moonlight Mile is a follow up from the one Kenzie and Gennaro book to have been made into a movie, Gone Baby Gone, which is a good example of an apparent Chandlerian shambles. It spins an unexpected answer out of nowhere, but is actually built and plotted very carefully from the ground up to deliver a powerful payoff. It made for a pretty good movie too. It's tempting to suggest that Lehane went back to this because it had the movie, but the reality is that he went back to it because it's probably the strongest of the five prior books and the one whose events had the heaviest impact on the characters. In Gone Baby Gone, Kenzie and Gennaro go looking for a lost four year old, and have a huge falling out over how to deal with finding her. In Moonlight Mile, the same lost girl has gone lost again, and Kenzie's guilt over the first case forces him into trying to find her again.

However, this time it's not an apparent shambles, but a real one. The whole middle of the book is a bunch of random things piled on each other, and the plot features an actual McGuffin that Dashiell Hammet might have thought twice about (Honestly, why the thing isn't called the Maltese Cross just so as to scream the shoutout for even the hard of hearing, I don't know). By the time we get to the big twisty last minute, how are they going to get out of this, reveal, I found myself for once wishing that a book was longer - not because I was having fun exactly, but because the sixty or so pages where everything falls into place feel so rushed and perfunctory compared to the welter of incident which has come before - I was going to write "set-up" but it's not set-up at all; set up connects to what's coming next, and this just marks time for it.

There are things to like. One of the bad guys, Yefim, is a nicely realised villain. He comes across as a perfectly plausible bad guy. He's good humoured and lazy, but effective as a menace because you can believe that behind the good humour and the laziness is the willingness to kill you if that's what it takes. What makes him work well is that quite early on you realise that what stops him from killing people is that he knows killing gets the cops interested and a dead man can't do anything else for you; much better to threaten for as long as that will work. I liked Yefim, but I'd never want to meet him. And Bubba is kept to a minimum, which is always good. Bubba's like any seasoning. And of course Lehane's a solid writer; his characters have some heft to them, the dialogue rings as true as noir dialogue ever can, and there's always a sense of the grubby reality of life to what's going on. It's by no means a bad book, it's more that it's not as good as I hoped it would be.

I have no idea what the title of this book has to do with anything that happens in it.


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