Saturday, June 04, 2011

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Just over a decade ago, I threw in the towel. For a while, I thought I could keep the mystery novel -- particularly hardboiled private eye books, which I still occasionally read and love -- as one of the genres I knew well and kept track of, but as life got more complicated (marriage, house, kids, adulthood) my grasp on the mystery world slipped away from me. So I don't claim any deep knowledge of the landscape of crime fiction -- the current overall term for the lands of thriller and detection, the way "speculative fiction" covers SF and fantasy and related areas -- just a tourist's interest in a land I once went seriously house-hunting in.

But I do like to visit that land whenever I can, particularly to provide parallax to contemporary fantasy, which works some of the same territory in its own way. And I was reminded at how nice most urban fantasy is -- despite the packs of werewolves and killer vampires stalking around -- when I recently read Dennis Lehane's sixth Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro novel, Moonlight Mile. I haven't read all of the urban fantasy writers, not by a long shot, but the only urban fantasist as tough and gritty as Lehane (or a couple of dozen of his compatriots in the lands of crime) is Charlie Huston, with a possible contender in Harry Connolly. Fantasy, I suppose, is a literature of possibility, so even at its doomiest, it can't compare to a literature of death and betrayal like a good mystery novel.

To get specific: Dennis Lehane writes about gritty, hardscrabble lives, about people one paycheck away from getting kicked out of their houses, or away from making that one bad decision that will ruin their lives. Or one drink away from doing something unforgivable. Or from doing it again. The Kenzie/Gennaro novels are set in and around Boston, so the obvious comparison would be Robert Parker's work -- but Lehane's world is nastier and vastly less forgiving than Parker's ever was, even back when Parker's world did have hard edges to it. For Patrick Kenzie, making a smart remark to a gangster means that he'll probably get hit with something heavy and hard -- and, if he's even more unlucky than usual, that thing could be a bullet to the back of the head.

Moonlight Mile is the first novel in the series since 1999's Prayers for Rain -- Lehane got mildly burned out on the series, went on to write other books, but came back when he had a story he really wanted to tell -- and those years have passed for Patrick and Angela as well: they've settled into married life, and have a young daughter. Angie is studying for a master's degree in sociology, and Patrick might be on the verge of being signed up by a high-powered Boston PI firm. But, for the moment, they're still counting every penny, living on what Patrick's private investigation work can bring in -- which isn't much, in the teeth of a recession -- and moving forward one day at a time. But Patrick and Angie get sucked back into an old case when Amanda McCready -- who they found, and returned to her parents against Angie's instincts, a dozen years ago in Gone, Baby, Gone -- disappears again.

That old case nearly tore them apart -- actually, all of their old cases nearly tore them apart, physically or emotionally or personally or all three. Patrick and Angie got wrapped up in their cases -- they couldn't help it -- and each one inflicted more and more damage on them. But things have been less psychically bruising for the last decade, though their finances have never been worse. And they're not sure if they should chase Amanda again -- particularly since bringing her back the first time was about the worst thing they could have done.

But Patrick does start looking, and digging into the sordid life of Amanda's unfit mother and stepfather, and finds worse and worse things the deeper he goes: starting with Russian mobsters to start and escalating from there. Eventually, he'll have to make the decision as last time: to bring Amanda back or not, to deliver her to the life she doesn't deserve or leave her to whatever she's found.

Lehane's eye is cold and dark and ruthless; this is a novel about people with few choices, most of them bad, trapped by their own appetites or pasts or just bad luck. In a Dennis Lehane book, we're all damned from birth -- it's just that some of us don't know it yet. Moonlight Mile is as taut and gripping and breathtakingly dangerous as the first run of novels in this series, and I hope he sticks around in the modern world for a few more books: we need to know the things he can tell us, about our world and ourselves.

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