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Book Review: Shutter Island

February 24, 2009

I read Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island when it came out in paperback a few years ago, and I’ve just read it again today. It’s really something. Lehane’s books have always affected me deeply, largely because of Mystic River and its exploration of loss — a story I related to quite powerfully.

His Kenzie/Gennaro mysteries are the best mystery novels out there today. Not since Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books have I been so engrossed in the world of private investigation.

But Shutter Island is very, very different from his other works. For one, it’s set in 1954. For another, it’s really pulpy. You’d think a guy who writes Boston mysteries would have worked pulp and noir into his work more often, but a big part of Lehane’s appeal is the fact that his Kenzie/Gennaro books ignore noir conventions and tell solid 21st-century crime stories without any old pulp PI conventions.

Lehane dumps all that, though, in Shutter Island. This is dark and bleak and cold and grim; not in the real-world way of his other books, but in a Hollywoody hallucination of a mystery. The whole story is trapped half awake. And it works.

Shutter Island is the story of Teddy Daniels, a US Marshal sent to the titular island, off the Maine coast, to investigate the disappearance of a prisoner from the Ashecliffe institution for the criminally insane. It’s a prison for the worst psychopaths, the killers whose minds are jungles of evil. Daniels and his brand-new partner, Chuck Aule, arrive just before a monster hurricane strands them on Shutter Island. Power fails, prisoners run free and in the midst of it all, something deeper is going on. Soon, Daniels starts to question everything around him and the walls close in.

There’s a lot more going on in this story than is clear at first, which is why I like it. Layers are peeled off like wet rain slickers until we get to the heart of the story: which I won’t reveal. But it isn’t what you think it is.

I guess I’ve been behind in my movie-news checking, because after finishing this today I googled it to find out more and discovered the film version is coming out this fall, directed by Martin Scorcese. And what a cast — dead on, in my opinion. Leonardo DiCaprio as Daniels, Mark Ruffalo as Chuck (perfect, perfect casting), Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson … it sounds, from the synopses, that the filmmakers have stayed true to Lehane’s vision.

Which makes sense. The two previous films made from Lehane novels — Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone — are two of my favourite book-to-film adaptations of all time. Lehane’s writing is perfect for film adaptation (and he wrote for TV’s The Wire), but hey, if you liked the movie of Gone, Baby, Gone, go read it and the other books in that series:

Whether it’s Shutter Island, Mystic River or the mysteries, it’s all perfect. Clean, crisp writing, characters so well-defined you know them by the end of the first page, and stories that dive deep, swimming in Boston’s dark currents before exploding into bleak, violent endings. Pure noir.

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