Dennis Lehane

 

Darkness Take My Hand

 

After giving such high praise to my first Lehane - A Drink Before the War – it was going to be tough to not be disappointed by the sequel. And, sadly, I did find this disappointing. Sometimes this doesn’t necessarily mean the book is any less than the predecessor, but is more about higher expectations, and that some of the techniques are no longer going to be novel. However in this case I’m sure that if I had have read the two books in the opposite order I still wouldn’t have liked ‘Darkness’ nearly as much. I still would have liked much of the mood, the writing and the characters – but all would have been undermined by the framework Lehane chose.

 

It doesn’t have to be a bad thing to choose a genre fiction staple (in this case the crime classic of the serial killer hunting the detective), and one of the real pleasures of ‘A Drink Before the War’ was the obvious familiarity and affection Lehane had for several conventions, deftly building to the high noon climax. However there was just too much stupidity to let me relax into this self-conscious version. I mean, hey, Lehane is very good, and much of the background was robust, along with the characters along the way. But give me a break (spoilers) with smart guy Kenzie doing some typically stupid things to undermine the climax. And Lehane in some ways is doubly at fault, because he deliberately highlights how he’s not going to fall into the silly tropes of, say, a Starsky and Hutch episode, where a perfect girl simply appears as the love of Starsky (or Hutch’s – doesn’t matter) life, gets (of course) killed, sets up the revenge plot, has a couple of poignant seconds graveside at the end of the episode … then is never thought of again in future episodes. Lehane does satisfyingly redress some of this stuff he obviously finds annoying by having *his* lead characters (a little too constantly foregrounded) bearing the scars of past trauma. But for all this, Grace (and her handbag daughter) are, in the end, as uncomfortably perfect (job, nature, bedroom, everything) and temporary as any TV stereotype. Was he consciously playing with this? If so, I didn’t really get it.

 

Another part of the problem is the serial killer frame. It’s hard to give sinew when your main plot device is like the Joker in Batman (I hate that in the Heath Ledger incarnation he just nothing short of magically can teleport bombs entirely throughout ships and hospitals). It’s just too easy for a couple of individuals to fool all the resources of the FBI (“Oh, we didn’t think to check the phone line”; “What! They were using a modem!?”). And just what is the deal when on a hunch (at very least) dozens of officers can be mobilised to lock down an entire island (reminds me of that Goon show line, “Quick! Surround Africa!”), but a SINGLE ROOKIE cop is detailed to sit in a patrol car in uniform outside the house containing the two targets that the focus of a massive decades long manhunt has declared he will be attacking immanently. And this is even meant to be seen as a deliberate trap. “Damn, the baddie was HIDING IN THE GARDEN. Sheesh, we NEVER thought to check there!” That one had me groaning and rolling my eyes. Oh, and of course the rookie is the promising, perfect, nephew of one of the major characters – he had ‘Dead Meat’ scrawled in huge neon letters across his forehead – and I can get that anywhere: I don’t want it in Lehane.

 

Also I'm not up for it when the revelation of the master criminal as someone we've already met DOESN'T make us go, "Ah, yeah, that makes a few other things all come together. That makes sense." Ideally you reassess previous information in light of this and it all falls together. But that's not how it works in 'Darkness' - the villain still could have been anybody else - we don't reassess anything. And even though Lehane had a go at justifying it, it really didn't wash with me that Kenzie and Phil would be alone with the serial killer at the end. Makes for a nice tense scene, but the moment Kenzie had tagged the killer the only reason he wouldn't even reveal his suspicions to the FBI is more to do with the way `pesky kids' don't get help from a grown up. Someone as street smart as Kenzie aware of how dangerous `G' is has nothing to gain by keeping this information to himself. This is even more the case when, bizarrely, five seconds later the cops go, "Oh, hey, we found a fingerprint. THIS is our guy." Seriously, that single line is thrown away, but plotwise it's *the* most crucial thing in the entire FBI investigation. And it makes all the torture shenanigans and angst of the previous few chapters meaningless (maybe Lehane was deliberately using this as irony, but even so it didn't work for me given the nature of this book). It doesn't fit with anything that's gone before: if near god-like uber-baddie was clumsy enough to leave a print there, he would have left one somewhere earlier. It's just too excruciatingly coincidental that if they had have found it even 15 minutes earlier the entire climax would have been diverted. Or if Kenzie had have had a fraction of a brain and stayed away while calling in the cavalry.

 

Lehane is still better than a lot of others. There were some effective scenes, dialogue and characters, and his lead is not the automaton of many a novel. But for me this book had much stronger weaknesses than strengths.

 

March 2011