Readers approach an established author with expectations. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Those expectations help keep readers familiar with the author, while recommending the author to friends and attending book signings --- all of those good things. So what does one do when a favorite author not only steps away from established characters, but also takes a familiar genre… and tinkers with it a bit, and thus transforms it into something else?
This is precisely what Dennis Lehane does with SHUTTER ISLAND, a book very different from what he has done in the past and also different from what others laboring mightily in the mystery and suspense idiom have done. Lehane made his bones with five novels featuring the duo of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. His last novel, MYSTIC RIVER, was a departure from those characters but still covered the same territory that Lehane has demonstrated an intimate familiarity with, that being modern-day, working class Boston, through the prism of the detective novel. SHUTTER ISLAND is a totally different animal.
SHUTTER ISLAND takes place not in 2003 but in 1954 and not in Boston but in view of it --- in Ashecliffe Hospital --- located on Shutter Island, an island with a history dating back to the Civil War. The tale is told through the eyes of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, the son of a fisherman, a man whose life has been marked by tragic violence and sorrow suffered in quiet silence. When we meet Daniels, he is on his way to Ashecliffe Hospital to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, one of the patients. Her disappearance is significant because Ashecliffe is not an ordinary hospital, but a treatment and holding center for the criminally insane. The island is accessible only by ferry and there is simply nowhere that Solando could have gone.
However, as Daniels and Chuck Aule, his newly acquired partner, begin their investigation, it is immediately apparent that all is not right. The doctors who run the hospital are not entirely cooperative, the assistant warden seems to be more obstructive than not and the warden is an enigmatic character who, within the brief period in which the reader makes his acquaintance, is quite frightening. But to say that nothing or no one on SHUTTER ISLAND is as it or they seem to be is an understatement. And when Solando reappears as suddenly as she vanished, it is a signal that the mystery is only beginning. But SHUTTER ISLAND is more, far more, than a mystery novel. The last chapter of this book will cause you to read it again and again, and then reread the entire novel. All is revealed, yet all remains obscure.
SHUTTER ISLAND is a genre-bending novel that is as absorbing a book as you are likely to read this year, combining the best elements of Agatha Christie, Eric Ambler, Philip K. Dick and Dennis Lehane. Readers will be discussing this novel --- and its ultimate revelation --- for quite some time. Very highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011