There are authors who have made their bones by turning over the rocks within the psyche, the ones that we keep our secrets buried under, those truths about ourselves that we don't want to know about, let alone the rest of the world. Stephen King is one. Cormac McCarthy is another.
A third is Dennis Lehane. Lehane is generally considered to be a mystery writer. King used to be considered a horror writer, until he blew the door off of that genre; and McCarthy, for even less good reason, used to be found in the westerns until he was "discovered" by the mainstream. Lehane, in similar manner, is with each new novel moving further and further away from a genre and into what we call "literature." Actually, he is already there and has been there for quite some time; it is just taking a while for the public perception to catch up with him.
Lehane's new novel, MYSTIC RIVER, is a character study in the clothing of a police procedural. We first meet the three principals --- Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle --- in 1975. Their friendship is a haphazard one, at best; Devine and Marcus are thrown together on the weekends as a result of the acquaintanceship of their fathers, and Boyle, a neighbor of Marcus, is more or less just along for the ride.
When two men in a car approach the boys on a Saturday afternoon, one of them gets into the car --- the other two do not. The lives of all three boys are changed forever in ways that will continue to unfold and will bring them unwillingly back together some 25 years later. Marcus is an ex-con who has gone straight and is now the owner of a popular neighborhood grocery. Devine is a state homicide detective. And Boyle...Boyle spends his time as a pretender to a life of normalcy, all the while keeping urges that he fears and does not understand at bay. When they meet again as adults, Marcus's daughter has been murdered, and Devine, a state investigator, is assigned to the case.
Old resentments and differences are immediately brought to the forefront. Marcus, understandably, favors a rough and brutal justice --- something that is accentuated by his violent criminal past. Devine, his personal life falling apart and encroaching upon his professional world, finds his past, which he thought he had left behind, encroaching on the present. Boyle, meanwhile, comes home covered in blood the night that Marcus's daughter dies. He tells his wife that he was a victim of a mugging. She, however, is quick to spot the flaws in his story, and slowly comes to fear that the man that she sleeps with each night, the father of her child, may be someone --- something --- far different than she ever imagined.
Again, MYSTIC RIVER is not a crime novel, except in perhaps the most superficial sense, the same way in which CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is superficially a police procedural novel. No, MYSTIC RIVER is an account of people and neighborhoods in transition, of blue collar workers left behind and crowded out and forgotten in the quiet upheaval of American society at the close of the second millennium. It is also a conundrum for the reader, who is swept along by Lehane's powerful imagery while his prose deserves and demands to be savored slowly and reread. And reread again. MYSTIC RIVER establishes Dennis Lehane as one of the great modern voices of American literature, a status that he has been building since his words were first printed on paper. Highest possible recommendation.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 2, 2002