After loving the opener A Drink Before the War, it was nice to enjoy many of Lehane’s strengths without the hamstringing framework of the disappointing sequel Darkness Take My Hand. Nicely paced, enjoyable verbal interplay, a touch of romance, and a femme fatale straight out of Chandler - as is a little reflection on the profundity of the effect of a beautiful woman – reminded me of that transcendent diversion on different types of Blondes in ‘The Long Goodbye’. This is a killer scene in ‘Sacred’, and cleverly manages to make what could have been a tired, sentimental and predictable declaration of love fresh and striking by placing it in a deftly comic context, which still manages to also be plot related:
“…I would have been a dead man in there. She picks guys – almost any guy – and she gets them to do her bidding, whatever that may be.”
“I want to meet this girl,” the woman said, “See if she can get my Leroy to mow the lawn.”
“But that’s what I don’t get,” Angie said. “Guys are that stupid?”
“What he said,” the woman said, concentrating on her knitting.
“Women and men are different,” I said. “Most of them anyway. Particularly when it comes to their reactions to the opposite sex.” I took her hand in mine. “Desiree passes a hundred guys in the street, at least half of them will think about her for days. And when she passes they won’t just go, ‘Nice face, nice ass, pretty smile,’ whatever. They’ll ache. They’ll want to possess her on the spot, melt into her, inhale her.”
“Inhale her?” she said.
“Yes. Men have a completely different reaction to beautiful women than women do to beautiful men.”
I’ve seen this disparate effect (and perception – notice how nonplussed Angie is with this data: for all the utter worship of the female form in popular culture, a lot of girls still find can’t quite believe it) on occasions where a beautiful woman can ingenuously have a devastating effect on and entire room, thinking she’s just, say, reaching up for something, while she’s effectively just made several men forget how to breathe.
The book isn’t perfect, and this scene is more a standout than typical. Again, I think a little tweaking of structure would remedy much of this. ‘Sacred’ hasn’t quite worked out what it’s trying to be. The scale of the baddies (and some of the goodies, such as Bubba) is comic book (Trevor Stone has the wealth, appearance, personality and dialogue of any Batman uber-villian; even the relatively minor ‘church’ (unsatisfactorily too easily resolved) sub-plot organisation has near god-like powers). Yet Lehane still wants to keep the hardboiled cred of the real mean streets. The wise-cracking of the climactic scene, everyone showing how witty they are under extreme danger, really just reduces this to the teen-banter of NCIS type shows, taking away any real suspense or sinew. Moreover at some point the lines blended – they could have been spoken by any of the characters. The casual death of Kenzie’s old boss is one of my pet trope hates (‘Wow – that guy died, and he was such a badass’. No, if he had survived in this dangerous business for as long as he is supposed to, he would never have died so easy).
I’d love to see Lehane reduce his frame – it doesn’t have to be about the FBI’s most wanted or the richest guy in the world or both the city’s most powerful gangs hunting the hero. Marlowe’s cases tended to revolve around relatively small fish, but this enhanced rather than reduced his emotional impact. The reverse is true with Lehane. Throwing in a Moriarty is something you really want to save for just one of your stories (and it was a stroke of genius that even Conan Doyle – a guy with enough credentials as a writer to think he might have pulled it off – never depicted a confrontation with the master criminal). Lehane is a good enough writer to not need to resort to ever increasing monsters to try to impress. He is at his weakest when goes big, his strongest when he keeps things in check, focussing less on spectacle. Power is not scale: a good writer can create more impact out of an argument than a poor one can out of an apocalypse.
Still, I’m mainly there for the ride in a book like this, and the ride and pacing were generally OK. It got me in, was engaging, and the most annoying stuff was mainly towards the end.