Down and Out In Dorchester

Eight years ago I moved to Boston. I was thrilled to be able to afford more for my rental dollar than in the NY burbs. Even more thrilled when I found a three (3!) bedroom, two bath, apartment available for a little less than what I was paying for a 1 bedroom. It was in Dorchester. I went to college near Boston but Dorchester didn't ring any bells. I looked it up on the Internet and saw that JFK's presidential library was there.

I hadn't read any Dennis Lehane then.

Fortunately my brother set me straight and thus my firsthand knowledge of Dorchester is limited.

The more I read Dennis Lehane, the happier I am about that.

Gone, Baby, Gone is Lehane's fourth Kenzie-Gennaro novel and the second I've read. Like Prayer's For Rain, it is unforgettable on multiple fronts. First, and often overlook, is the witty, believable dialogue. No matter who is talking, Lehane doesn't assume that working class equals idiot. Second are Kenzie and Gennaro themselves, smart, likable, and real. Third is the entire cast of secondary characters, some like Bubba recurring, others like Remy and Poole just along for the story. Fourth is the plot.

Somehow Lehane writes about things I would normally refuse to read about - the kidnapping of a child, heinous murders, etc - in a way that focuses on the emotional reality of the situation rather than going for cheap, gory shocks. Gone, Baby, Gone is the story of a little girl who is kidnapped from her drug-addled, drunken, selfish, sluttish, TV-obsessed mother. Looking at that last sentence I can't help feeling I've gone too easy on Helene McCready. Easily one of the least likable characters ever, Helene isn't a monster, she's a walking mess, but she's real. It's what makes her so horrifying. Unlike Hannibal Lector, Helene could be walking the streets as I type this. She could be living a few blocks away.

Lehane puts life's trash on display: people who prey on others, people who have lost whatever paltry self-respect they fleetingly had, people who don't loose themselves in alcohol so much as preserve themselves in it. He also puts tough questions in front of the reader. Kenzie willfully refuses to judge most of the time, when he does, he judges so harshly it frightens him back into refusing to judge. Gennaro is willing to judge because she can see the eventual outcome of the disasters in front of her. Is jail too good for child molesters? When are "parental rights" simply society's way of absolving itself of responsibility to a child? Is there any cure for the borderline poverty and outright despair of the underclass? Do we blame them for their retreat into drugs and alcohol rather than question our own responsibility?

What sets Lehane apart from some of the more ponderously "literary" mystery writers is that he raises these questions seamlessly in the course of a plot that cruises along well above the speed limit. He delivers a mystery, an intricate plot, compelling multi-dimensional characters and one-liners on popular culture without a single drop in the action. He even manages to advance the relationship between Kenzie and Gennaro without falling into the usual traps that await most series-based detective stories. You never get the feeling that the plot is there to either give Kenzie and Gennaro something to talk about or, worse, give them something to baldly and wordily soul-search.

I have three more Kenzie-Gennaro's to go. I'm trying to space them out given that Lehane appears to have moved on. I enjoyed Mystic River but unlike Prayers For Rain and this book, I can't imagine rereading it. It was too painful, too real, too sad to read again knowing the end. Prayers and Gone leave the reader with thread of hope for humanity. Mystic River leaves you with no more hope than its characters. Not that I'd rather not have read anymore than I'd skip any other book he writes. Lehane is too good to miss. And too good to forget.

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