Realising I’m a Lehane fanboy and chucking out old superlatives…

It has been pointed out to me more than a few times that I can be a bit OTT when it comes to explaining things I liked or enjoyed. A particularly good episode of The Apprentice can quickly become ‘the best thing I’ve ever watched’, and a fresh piece of melon is sometimes ‘the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted’. It means that when I describe something I tend to throw in the big guns so quickly that they lose all meaning – and it’s something I think a lot of people are guilty of, to some extent. I’m all for being positive, but here I’m going to try not to rely on my old tropes. Words like unbelievable and incredible are banned here (for this post at least). Here goes…

Discovering a new author is a joy, and it always has been. Discovering a new author whose work thrills you and seems to connect with you time and time again is a step further than that. When writing too, finding that someone who inspires, informs and delights is also a watershed moment. That’s how I feel at the moment with Dennis Lehane.

Yes, I’m years too late. Quite literally decades too late. I know his books have already been dissected and pawed over by millions of readers already, but that means nothing to me, aside from confirming to me that I’m in the right place, and that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I’ve read a handful of Lehane’s books now, and have been more and more taken with each novel – and the last one I read, Darkness, Take My Hand, has immediately become one of my favourite books of all time. And no, I’m not resorting to my old outlandish descriptions for things that perhaps don’t deserve it. I genuinely see it as a cornerstone book in my own development as both a reader and a writer.

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It is the second book in the Kenzie & Gennaro series, about two private investigators in Boston and their adventures. On this occasion, the past has come back to bite Patrick Kenzie in the form of a serial killer, who gruesomely terrorises Patrick’s old neighbourhood as part of a grander historical plan.

It was published in 1996, but it reads like the top crime fiction bestseller of 2017. Or 2018. Or 2019… Point is, there’s a freshness, a timelessness, a pointed transient quality that lifts the book out of a place in time and puts it in the here and now of whenever the here and now happens to be. I’ll read it again in a few years and still be taken by it.

Something I’m trying to learn about putting into my own work is layers, and I think I try to hard at it to get it right. Lehane’s work is full of layers, and it all feels so effortless yet so keenly worked. Social commentary, existentialism, politics, life, love, the hereafter… It’s all here, and the work feels so enriched and multi-faceted because of it. The result is challenging and rewarding for the reader. Something I constantly despise is the snobbery in the literary world towards crime books and their merits in being able to tackle bigger things. I assure you, my thoughts were more provoked, teased, prodded and bullied during this novel than with anything of a supposedly more literary nature – the only difference being that Lehane doesn’t seem so keen to point out how clever and high-brow he is being. Lesson for me to take on board here – you don’t need to sound like a patronising windbag in order to tackle themes you might think you shouldn’t.

And on this topic, Lehane doesn’t shoehorn it in. He doesn’t bring up the socio-economic differences between race and class because he’s making a grander point off the page – it is here because it benefits the story and the world our characters exist in. It makes it more nuanced, more varied, more real. Layers.

On the topic of his world, it is a meticulously detailed landscape which is just as much a character as any human voice in the novel. The streets, the neighbourhood, the atmosphere, are all very much a part of the story. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I’ve never left. It’s a testament to Lehane’s powers of both observation and descriptive talent that I feel as embedded in the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston as the characters. And again, you’re never bludgeoned with it. It’s just… there. And it’s just… happening.

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The characters are typically varied, rounded and masterfully drawn, and again it is that testament of getting the reader to know and understand that characters without bashing you ever the head with it. Histories are shared and explained without you noticing. Personalities are shown but never told. The reader falls into it all and becomes part of the cast of characters, a Houdini-like sleight of hand trick that has happened before you know it has. Kenzie & Gennaro are unlike any characters I’ve come across. They are bold, brave, sensitive and damaged, but in ways that don’t rely on old conventions or lame pointers. Layers again. Another trick author’s try so hard to pull is to make the audience care for the protagonist – Lehane manages this here again like David Copperfield with a pen. It’s done before I know it. A little misdirection here, and hey presto, I’m following Kenzie & Gennaro until the bitter end.

Plot. It’s surprising and terrifying. I’ll give nothing away, but it’s an unravelling onion of the darkest corners human beings have, and what pushes people into them. Every time you think our characters have a handle on things, the rug isn’t so much pulled as detonated with a case of C4. It moves at such a speed that managing to evoke the care for character and environment as already mentioned is a miraculous achievement. I’d finished the book before I even got to grips with how much I was enjoying it, and I didn’t want it to end – but I hoped the end would bring safety to the characters and neighbourhood.

I’m going to call it a day there, but the third Kenzie & Gennaro book is sitting on my shelf behind me. I’ll be into it before the week is out I’m sure. But I’ve learned so much from reading this one, lessons I hope to take forward myself. With your writing, you can go for it, in every sense of the word. There’s no point otherwise. Don’t idle in neutral. Take it to the readers. Ignore convention and snobbery. Find that voice in you that won’t shut up, and make it impossible to ignore. If you do you might just write something that someone will call the best thing ever. Whoops. Couldn’t help it.

 

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Lehane to Lord Of The Flies

Time flies when you’re having fun – and so do pages. I feel I’m in the richest vein of my life at the moment when it comes to reading, and my shelves are bulging with new acquisitions.

I’ve already spoken about how Dennis Lehane has burrowed his way into my all-time favourites list, but I was unprepared for how great A Drink Before The War was going to be. Kenzie and Gennaro, the detectives driving the story, are wonderful creations – both jaded and cynical yet still so alive to the good they look for. They are not perfect (who is?) and that’s just how I like my heroes – layered in all sorts of greys. The plot was superb, the twists unpredictable and genuinely flooring, and the social commentary was as on-point and surgical as anything I’ve read in the genre before. I’m totally in my element here – and there are five more! Oh happy days…

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While I’m on form, I’m going to try to broaden my horizons with some classics too – namely all those books I feel I should have read by now. So I’ve started with one that a lot of kids in the UK read in school, but I somehow didn’t – Lord Of The Flies. The William Golding book we tackled was The Spire, which was wonderful in itself, so I was eager to see how Golding’s other works matched up. I’m about half way through, and it’s so clear to see why the book is still passed from generation to generation. It’s a timeless tale so well told, and a precursor to so many stories since – and I mean so many. There are echoes of Lord Of The Flies everywhere you look on TV and popular culture. The prose itself is so elegantly precise, with a fantastic whimsical poignancy. It’s a voice so composed, and lends a gravity to the book you seldom get to read. Even though I know what’s coming, I can’t wait to read Golding deliver it.

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Lined up at the same time is Jason Arnopp’s The Last Days Of Jack Sparks, which has been on my to read list for a while, but for seeing it by chance at a library I was passing, I bumped it up. That is one eye-catching front cover, and I believe the words are equally captivating too.

Difficult one, this. I excitedly got hold of a book that the world has been raving about, and I’m ashamed to admit I really didn’t like it. Books and stories are so subjective that it’s impossible to please everyone, and I’m sure the wider reading world is completely justified in praising the work. Technically it was marvellous – it was just that I couldn’t stand the protagonist. I’ve been mulling over as to why since I finished it, and I think I’ve hit on it. 

The main character of this book was just utterly subservient to men, their wants and desires. She was weak-willed, passive and fickle. It was maddening. I kept wanting to leap into the pages to shake some backbone into her, but it wasn’t just the main character who was portrayed in such weak terms – the other women in the story were all floundering, flawed and damaged with the same stereotypical traits. 

I have two little girls and I’m trying to bring them up, empower them, to be strong, spirited, independent women who can go and do anything they want in life – the polar opposite of the women in this book, and in that sense, I couldn’t relate to or respect them at all. It frustrated me so much that it was quite a sad reading experience in the end, and I feel bad for not liking this book because the effort and achievement of the author is really something. But I can’t help feeling this way about it! 

This is no essay on gender equality, or a comment on modern gender roles etc, because I’m not in any qualified position to comment. I’m just a father of girls who believes in equality, believes in strong female characters in creative projects and believes that there has to be something more to life for a woman than trying to satisfy the impossible demands of the man you happen to be saddled with.

After I finished, I grabbed the first of Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series ‘A Drink Before The War’ and from the first page it was like a long cool glass of lemonade – refreshing in every way. Lehane is now another of my go-to’s if I need to redress the balance.

I feel like the last guest to show up, but now I’m here I’m glad I made it. I practically ate this book in 24 hours (which with two young kids is no mean feat!).

It ticked every box I possess when it comes to what I like about crime fiction. It zipped along at a magnificent pace, with a sparkling succinctness that urged me to keep picking it up for just a few more pages (then a few more pages, and so on…)

It was moody, revelatory, funny, surprising, exciting and bursting with life. Catching up on what I’ve missed is now an utmost priority – the postman will be busy with book shaped parcels in the coming days…

Holidays and Happiness

Been away this last week or so, enjoying some downtime with my family, on the beautiful Norfolk Broads here in the South East of England. I took a metric tonne of books with me, thinking I’d get through loads, but was so exhausted by the busy days that come evening-time I was too goosed to flip through many pages at all. I managed to finish Paul Doiron’s The Precipice, and managed a brief departure from my crime fiction gorging to E.L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain.

I had such a wonderful time away, with my wife, my parents, my siblings, their partners and our collective children, and didn’t stop to think about how great it was until I got home, and as I was finishing Andrew’s Brain, I realised Doctorow had covered this feeling of near-ignorant enjoyment. I went back through the book to fish it out:

‘True happiness comes of not knowing you’re happy, it’s an animal serenity, something between contentment and joy, a steadiness of the belonged self in the world.’

How beautiful is that?! And with that I’ve found my new life motto. 

The week holiday is a traditional one always designed to coincide with the early stages of the pike fishing season, and in a collective state of the above animal serenity, we came into contact with some lovely ones – including my biggest pike in 17 years, this 18lb 14oz beauty:

Smug is an understatement. 

I’m now home, back into addressing a freshly returned manuscript from my wonderful editor, and I’m recharged and buzzing. I’ve moved onto Dennis Lehane’s The Drop, which I’m already lovingly in awe of. 

Sorry E.L., but right now I’m happy and I know it – and I’m making the executive call that it counts too, however brilliant my new life motto is.