Perhaps I’m being a bit generous in this rating – I can’t say this book really hooked me, and I’ll have a bit of a whinge about some of the characters later – but my complaints about the flaws of scale in the earlier books were largely addressed here, and I really like it when two characters readers are both supposed to respect have strongly opposing views (such a rarity even in ‘intelligent’ novels; authors still generally want to put their stamp, consciously or unconsciously, on where our sympathies are to lie) – and this is brought home beautifully climactically, and is even more potent for the journey we’ve had with Patrick and Angie over several books.
Part of my ambivalence could be down to having seen the movie before reading the book, but unlike many (totally valid) readers, I really don’t focus on plot as the chief area of pleasure in this genre, and prior knowledge of some secrets was never going to be why or why not I liked the book. Totally unoriginally my favourite is Chandler, and in my favourite of his books, The Long Goodbye, I could care less about the plot – it’s just a minor aspect of the frame where he hangs his wonderful characters, expression, dialogue and mood. I actually enjoyed the book significantly more than the movie: I found more room to develop his scenario, to put some nuances into the mix. I liked that the movie didn’t utterly slavishly follow the book, and understood that it had to reduce the number of characters. So, yeah, I think Lehane has always relied more on plot than Chandler, and for me this is a weakness. Where I most enjoy Lehane is his occasionally inspired interactions – which is what, for example, pushed Sacred up to a B+ for me, despite several flaws.
Not so with Gone, Baby, Gone – it rises above its (different) flaws for other reasons. There’s not much room for wit and humour with this pretty consistently dark theme of the abuse of children. There’s a bit of it with the banter between Broussard and Poole, but this was uncomfortably close to the Oscar/Devin interplay – at first I thought Lehane had just planted two different names on essentially the same characters (yes, I know they have different ages/races/levels of grooming etc., but the dynamics of their relationship – which in these novels functions as something more important than their individuality – was too similar). He’s trying for some humour with the superbad Cheese and old faithful Bubba, but there are too many supposedly superlative badasses in the mix (much as bad fantasy undermines its uber-villains by having too many of them: yes, I’m talking to you Mr. Goodkind). You can only have one boss-fight – otherwise they’re not really a boss. Yet Bubba, Cheese, and Broussard as a bare minimum are given boss rating (so how can Bubba get casually taken down by minor character Pasquale? Is he another boss?). As amazon reviewer C. D. Murphy put it, “…the tough men being the toughest men ever..” You know: contrast: if everyone’s the toughest, no-one is. Alternatively, why isn’t everyone dead since they’re all armed, fabulously adept at murder, and constantly threatening each other? Oh, and while sniping, he does go a bit mental with the entire city and seasoned cops inexplicably going crazy over THIS particular child, as if no child has gone missing ever before (and ludicrous in a novel that starts with the line, “Every day in this country, twenty-three hundred children are reported missing.”).
So what does make this book stand out?
Well, for once instead of Kenzie and Gennaro single-handedly taking on the gangs of the entire city/the FBI’s most wanted/evil Bruce Wayne, now thank goodness Lehane has realised there’s plenty scary enough going on with any nutbag paedophile or bent cop. This makes things just a little more plausible, and leaves him to create something rather than (so much) relying on, “…oh, and it’s a REALLY bad guy…” More than that, he goes very ‘The Shield’ on us with bad people doing admirable things – or was that vice-versa (and that’s definitely in the Chandler tradition: Marlowe always seems to have too much time for some people on the wrong side of the law, and too little for respectable folk). Broussard’s motives are not merely greed or power. Lehane paints a powerful picture of a neglected child who has been rescued – and then has hero Kenzie put her back. And heroine Angie leave him for it (hmmm, what of Kenzie/Gennaro 5?). This was potent and cool and to some degree* challenging. I like Lehane’s justification of Kenzie’s code earlier in the book – which deals with the objection, “Hey, Patrick, how can you be all Dudley do-right about these guys breaking the kidnapping law, when you have no qualms about murdering paedophiles?” The line is where Patrick explains why he doesn’t support capital punishment: not because some folks don’t deserve to die, but because he doesn’t trust that the system is able to accurately determine that. But he trusts himself. He’s against the kidnapping because he thinks there’s a bond between Amanda and her silly and at times acknowledged to be appalling mother, and that the mother deserves another chance.
Although it did make me do a clanger/double take when in the climactic scene (and it is brilliant that a conversation was even more potent than the preceding shootout – although any one-on-one Mexican standoff is inexcusable) when vigilante Kenzie, of all people responds to Angie’s plea:
“Patrick, Patrick. No, no, no. Please, for God’s sake. No. Talk to him. We can’t do this. We can’t.”
“It’s the law, Ang.”
Excuse me? Kenzie is being radically inconsistent here, but we’re meant to view him as consistent, as having total integrity. But I do love it when Lehane gives Angie a great comeback line, and that he is allowing us two opposing characters both chock full of integrity:
“Those people have chosen to judge certain people on whether they’re fit to raise children. Who gives Doyle the right to make that decision? What if he meets a kid and doesn’t like the religion he’s being raised in? What if he doesn’t like parents who are gay or black or have tattoos? Huh?”
A squall of icy anger darkened her face. “We’re not talking about that, and you know it. We’re talking about this particular case, and this particular child. Don’t give me all that pampered classroom philosophising the Jesuits taught you…”
So nice when you’re reading a book and you get to see the objections you’re hearing in your own head printed in the next line. Even more enjoyable when neither of the combatants are straw men.
So this was a very unusual book for me in that I appreciated the conclusion more than the whole story beforehand. Way more often I’ll excuse a weak or twee or implausible resolution for the sake of the prior ride.
Oh, and as for my snide *’to some degree’ about the potency of this climax? Hats off to Lehane for the level of moral dilemma he allowed … but if, for example, Angie or Broussard or Doyle had a scintilla of the apparent desperate concern they have for neglected children (driving them risking whole careers, obsessively devoting night after night to reviewing a case, putting their lives at risk, and murdering – even murdering innocents, or leaving the love of their life) … they could always foster or adopt one of the thousands of kids agencies are constantly trying to find homes for. To just stick in a couple of stats from a random website I haven’t fact-checked, http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/FosterCare/story?id=2017991&page=1#.UJ9KCWc6Fkg, in America:
About 40,000 infants are placed in foster care every year.
126,000 children are currently available for adoption.
I know in Australia (where I’m from) welfare agencies are constantly pleading for foster carers. I’m not saying kids who aren’t on the state’s books aren’t abused, or that courts don’t make ridiculous decisions about custody to parents who have an inexcusable history of abuse and neglect. But I am saying that to suggest that the only way to try to help neglected children is to go outside the law is good fodder for the climax of a fiction novel, but absurd in real life. In real life wanting to help is not so much a difficult moral dilemma so much as how much you are prepared to give of yourself.