'The moment that innocence ends fascinates me.'
A cluster of white balloons bobs from a post in front of mystery writer Dennis Lehane's brown stucco house situated on a hilly residential street in Brighton, Mass. Inside, friends have strung a banner across the staircase: 'Welcome Home Mr. and Mrs. Lehane.' The crime novelist and his wife, Sheila, were married two weeks earlier, and they've just returned from a honeymoon on the West Coast.
Their pleasant, prosperous neighborhood, where poet Robert Pinsky also lives, is a millennial leap in class and style from Dorchester, Boston's old working-class Irish district where the 33-year-old Lehane grew up, and where his violent, troubled, often sullen private detective Patrick Kenzie lives. And the sunny, comfortable 75-year-old house in Brighton, with its white cotton damask sofa, brick fireplace and exposed beams, is a marked contrast to Kenzie's dusty, sparsely furnished third-floor apartment, protected with so many burglar alarms, locks, steel doors and wired windows as to resemble a high-security government office.
Lehane is about to set out on a nationwide tour for his new novel, Prayers for Rain, just out from William Morrow, the fifth in his popular, highly praised Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro detective series. A huge, loyal readership has been attracted to Lehane's blue-collar stories of urban crime, written with lyrical panache and spotted with dark humor. His plots, too, carry a certain signature style: carefully crafted, they begin within narrow confines only to spin mesmerisingly out of control.
Lehane first exploded onto the mystery scene in 1994 with A Drink Before the War (Harcourt), which won a Shamus Award for Best First Novel. Comparisons to Patricia Cornwell and Jonathan Kellerman, both of whom also made huge splashes with their first novels (Postmortem, 1990, and When the Bough Breaks, 1985, respectively), are inevitable. However, both Cornwell and Kellerman were considerably older than Lehane when their first books were published. Lehane, on the other hand, rocketed out of nowhere, a fresh-faced graduate of the writing program at Florida International University in Miami.
Lehane, slim and with a baby face that makes him look even younger than he is, manages a nonetheless convincing empathy for the tough and harder-edged working class characters of the rough-and-tumble neighborhood he grew up in. 'The Dorchester in my book is the neighborhood of the '70s and '80s,' he says. 'My mother and father were Irish immigrants with a sense that life was hard and unfair and you just tried your best. Your children were your life and you did all you could for them.'
Lehane's father was a warehouse foreman for Sears; his mother worked in a school cafeteria. He is the youngest of five. 'I love what I do,' he says, 'but I'm no hero. My father worked the same job for 37 years and I don't think he loved it. That's heroism, doing the job and working toward retirement to support your family. That's awe-inspiring.'
Lehane knew early on he didn't want to follow in his father's footsteps. 'My mother took me to the library when I was six, and that was it. I was a 'normal' kid except that I read all the time. My only arguments with my mother were about what I could read. I wanted to read Joseph Wambaugh when I was 11; she thought I was too young.'
Lehane started college at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, but soon transferred to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.,'a small college with a writing workshop and scholarship money, right on the Gulf of Mexico.' After graduating in 1988, he entered the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Florida International, where he studied with novelist John Dufresne, crime writers James Hall and Les Standiford, and short story writer Lynne Barrett.
'My publishing career is such a fluke. I got to it a lot faster than I expected. I have no publishing horror stories,' he says happily, lighting a cigarette. 'At 20 I wrote short stories, but I never sent anything out because my stories didn't meet my high standards.'
Lehane wrote his first mystery for the fun of it, he says, and showed it to his creative writing teacher at Eckerd, novelist Sterling Watson. Watson nevertheless thought so highly of the book, which became A Drink Before the War, that he showed it to agent Ann Rittenberg, a former student. She sent the manuscript to Claire Wachtel at Harcourt Brace, who bought it June 17, 1993, a year to the day before it won the Shamus Award. When Wachtel moved to Morrow later that year, Lehane followed her. (All of his books are backlisted with Avon.)
In Patrick and Angie, investigative partners and friends since childhood, Lehane has created two indelible characters whose intense, anguished, sexually charged relationship is constantly evolving. In A Drink Before the War, Angie -- beautiful with long, thick dark hair and caramel eyes, sarcastic and thoughtful, has been married for 12 years to an abusive childhood friend, Phil Dimassi. Patrick, a handsome six-footer who dresses carelessly in unstructured sports jackets, jeans and sneakers, harbors the physical and psychic scars from a brutal father and a life of violence.
In A Drink Before the War, two politicians ask the detectives to find a sheaf of documents stolen from the Massachusetts State House. They easily locate the thief who, in a sudden, startling scene, is gunned down in front of Patrick. Eventually the detectives are enmeshed in a drug war and attempt to rescue a sexually abused child. At the end, Angie assaults her husband and leaves him.
The book introduces the soulless men and women who are Lehane's trademark villains. However, it isn't only the scoundrels who are savage. Bubba Rogowsky, another of Patrick and Angie's childhood friends, is a hulking, anti-social dealer in illegal arms; he is loyal guardian of Patrick, much as Robert B. Parker's Hawk is of Spenser, without the polish and wit but equally reliable and effective.
Darkness, Take My Hand (Morrow, 1996), perhaps Lehane's most highly regarded and bleakest novel, begins with Angie and Patrick still partners, Angie living alone and Patrick in a relationship with another woman. When a psychiatrist hires the detectives to prevent the psychotic henchman of Boston's Irish Mafia boss from killing her son, the two sleuths find themselves up against a serial killer on a rampage in Boston. Angie is forced to ask her grandfather, a highly placed Mafia Don, for help as a desperate measure. By the book's final chapter, Angie and Patrick are injured and shaken, and temporarily close their business. Lehane says of this book, 'I attempted tragedy and got nihilism. Writing it was so grueling that while I was working on it I had Sacred  in mind -- an 'English mystery' about a missing heiress, not as dark as the first two books.'
In Sacred and Gone, Baby, Gone (1998), Patrick and Angie become lovers, then break up. When Prayers for Rain begins, a disconsolate Patrick is plying his trade alone in Dorchester, while Angie works for a high-tech Boston security firm. When Patrick discovers that Karen Nichols, a former client, has leapt off of the Customs House Tower, he begins his own investigation. Bored with her new job, Angie joins him. Lehane refers to the novel as his 'architecture' book, since the detectives trace Karen's disastrous last months through the neighborhoods and landmark buildings of Boston: from upscale Weston, Newton and Back Bay to the Holly Martens Inn (a reference to The Third Man), a seedy motel near Springfield. The trail leads to a psychological predator, who pushes his victims to suicide, and an unresolved ending. But Patrick and Angie are together again.
Invading Parker's Territory
Lehane's success allows him to write full-time now. Reviewers in People and the Chicago Tribune have compared him to Chandler and Parker; while short story writer Andre Dubus saw similarities to James Lee Burke. But that is not to say that Lehane's books don't have their own distinctive strengths. Indeed, they are more brooding and violent than Chandler's, his characters more psychically bruised and haunted by their pasts than Parker's, more vengeful and cynical than Burke's.
'I felt I was invading Parker's territory writing about Boston, so my books are really an homage to him,' Lehane says. 'Burke is what I was aspiring to. He took the genre and made it explode by applying literary theory to what was still considered 'pulp fiction.''
Lehane's novels start with character -- 'that's the short story writer in me.' He works out a skeletal plot but is never sure how things will conclude. 'In Prayers for Rain I didn't know until the climactic scene in the bunker who was good and who was bad. I write at least four drafts. I'm language-obsessed and tend to work the language a lot. In college one of my professors said, 'Dennis will throw everything out the window for a pretty sentence' -- and I still will.'
He writes in long hand first, then revises his work on a computer, listening to CDs most of the time: 'slamming' music like the Rolling Stones when he's writing action, classical music from movie sound tracks as inspiration for the quieter scenes.
Under pressure from his editor to finish Prayers for Rain in time for Father's Day release, Lehane 'wrote around the clock for four months' and sequestered himself in a hotel in New York near the Morrow offices. 'Usually, I write in long bursts for a few months, then recharge for a few months, then continue writing, but I wouldn't recommend it. I'd like to be like Graham Greene. He wrote 500 words a day, every day. No more than 500.'
Lehane's complex, dramatically choreographed action scenes and his slangy, powerful dialogue are hallmarks of his writing. To create action scenes, he confesses, 'I'm a film geek. I love to watch great action sequences and ask myself how they work. It's the shifting rhythms, like in the railroad station scene in The Untouchables. That's what I try to do.' He says Wachtel often advises restraint in the action scenes. 'And she's always right,' he says with a smile. 'My early writing was very spare, influenced by Raymond Carver. Then I read Walker Percy's The Movieg r and the magical realists and my writing became lush, then purple, then I toned it down.
'Dialogue comes easy,' he says. 'I've always had an ear for it. Richard Yates said, 'Great dialogue is not what's said but what's unsaid.' I like that. There are a lot of ellipses in my dialogue.'
Although his books are studded with scenes of excruciating violence, he says he's 'not particularly pessimistic, but the moment that innocence ends fascinates me. Violence is not cathartic and it d sn't solve anything, but there's some part of me that lets the bad guy escape.'
Perhaps it's that contrary part of his nature that led him into the chancy world of writing. Lehane's repeated theme of child abuse stems from his work with abused and mentally handicapped children while at college and a post-undergraduate job counseling delinquents from the state juvenile hall in St. Petersburg. That experience, he says, drove home the fact that children's violent behavior is traceable to their parents. 'Monsters are made, not born,' he says. 'Patrick's violence stems from his father's brutality.' Patrick and Angie, as Lehane puts it, 'are really screwed up people in their personal lives, but I don't know too many people who aren't.'
A reporter can't resist asking if Patrick and Angie are based on specific people. Lehane says only that Angie resembles the Irish women he knew growing up who 'have always held the family together; they're much less sentimental than the men.' However, 'if a character is particularly heinous -- a pimp or a drug dealer -- most likely he's named after one of my friends,' he says with an impish grin.
Jones is a freelance writer and book reviewer
who lives in West Rupert, Vermont.