Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

[8 April 2003]

By Valerie MacEwan

Shudder Island?

“I see nobody on the road.” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Dennis Lehane, bestselling author of The Kenzie / Gennaro mystery series, and the highly acclaimed, much praised Mystic River (soon to be released as a motion picture), comes right back into the suspense forefront with his latest—Shutter Island—a wham bang thriller.

The terms eagerly awaited and bestselling author often make reviewers roll their eyes with dread. Another Nicholas Sparks? Is Grisham ever going to repeat his stellar performance and write like he did in A Time to Kill? Or, the penultimate fear, will the editor assign a Danielle Steele book for review? The truth is, writing and editing for PopMatters is different. PopMatters book reviews (in theory, but reality sometimes differs) are supposed to be an analysis of popular culture, its effects on the writing, the author, the sales of the book. While trying to make a stab at cultural comparisons and dictates, we also insert our personal preferences. With this in mind, I was fearful of another “sure-fire, bestseller blockbuster” when I received the galley proof of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island from the ever-amazing Julia at HarperCollins. Seems like once they make it to the big top and out of the sideshows, authors are more concerned with slamming out moneymakers rather than center ring quality fiction.

I really wanted Lehane to keep up the pace he began with Mystic River and his award-winning Kenzie/Gennaro Series. Rooting for his success, I hoped he wouldn’t let me down.

When discussing Lehane, one of the first things to note is his ability to take all the characters and put them, in the book’s conclusion, into a nice, neat, tightly packaged box. The second thing is, it’s not a cigar box, it’s a jack-in-the-box. Remember to back out of the way when you turn the literary handle. He did it in Mystic River and he’s done it again in Shudder Island. Let me say it here—the quality of Lehane’s writing stays consistent thus far. He’s fast becoming the one of the new grand masters of the pop suspense writing craft. Lehane and Dan Brown [The Da Vinci Code] are tough acts for any suspense/thriller writer to follow.

The plot will keep you reading late into the night; the ending’s a big ass surprise; and the premise is plausible; and Lehane’s command of the English word, his twist of a phrase, is most commendable.

Police dramas, crime stories, “who done its”—all are ever popular and time doesn’t seem to change their status. From Palladin to The Rockford Files to CSI on TV, in books and movies, people do love a mystery. And they crave suspense. Reasons vary. Dull personal lives that need to be punched up? Or maybe we seek out the drama because our own lives are so confusing. The order, the denouement of a mystery/suspense novel—the explanations—we need that. Or it could be that mystery and suspense stories offer the same rush completing a crossword puzzle or the daily cryptoquote can.

Romantic entanglements are staples, part of the plot in most thrillers. Whether referring to love lost (as in Shutter Island), or to possible love-just-around-the-corner via a co-heroine/hero (The Da Vinci Code, Utopia and others) the question of romance provides more suspense. Will they “hook up” in the end? Will they walk away? Will they be murdered? Romance provides another vehicle to draw the reader into the next volume, because often the heroes/heroines return in subsequent books, or, if they’re killed off, the prospect of new love for the protagonists sucks the reader in.

Like Dan Brown, Dennis Lehane “operates squarely in the territory of the pop bestseller”. [Salon] Lehane believes actions have consequences, and it’s those consequences that create suspense—the “thrill” in thriller. He writes of the psychological effects of war on one man’s life. The action of killing, the consequence of killing . . . a most timely subject in these troubled times. Lehane’s protagonist is World War II veteran Teddy Daniels.Shutter Island‘s plot centers around psychiatric treatment in the 1950s. As we are now firmly entrenched in the “chemical age” of the psychiatric profession, and have moved beyond those pre-Prozac-Zoloft-unHalcyon days of shock treatments and radical experiments (such as the use of neuroleptics on schizophrenics) designed to modify behavior, Lehane’s book is a reminder of what used to be the norm. (Or is it? Remember, it’s a suspense novel).

The ending will surprise you and the suspense will keep you reading until you get there. The setting, while it’s a mental institution in the 1950s, is timely even today. The characters are compelling. Lehane’s got a hit. Dare I say “bestseller” and not grit my teeth? Yes. And I want Nicholas Cage or Bruce Willis to star as Teddy Daniels. Pop fiction deserves pop stars.

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