Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane
You know how it feels when a good friend goes away for awhile, and you’re not sure when you’ll see them again? It’s like that for me with recurring characters in books.
Don’t get me wrong–I don’t walk around wondering how Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are doing in Sweet Valley. But certain characters stick with you. Lately I’ve been finding that protagonists in mysteries have a way of coming back. I wonder how they’re going to do in their next adventure; I think about the ways that the individual cases might have changed them. Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford‘s high blood pressure can’t have been helped by his most recent case; and Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley is still getting over the tragic death of his wife. Don’t even get me started on PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh, who seems constantly at war with the fact that his badass, poetry-writing self also loves policework.
Dennis Lehane writes characters like that. His detectives, Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie, high school sweethearts who went their separate ways partway through his series of novels, deal with terrible situations that make you pretty much want to crawl into a ball and die a short, misery-filled, death. In Lehane’s books, human nature isn’t always good, and the lines between right and wrong are badly blurred. Kenzie and Gennaro deal with terrible problems. (This is true in Lehane’s other books, too–Mystic River and Shutter Island each have terrible quandaries at their cores.)
So, if his books make me want to rail and scream at the unfairness everywhere, what keeps me coming back?
It’s only a matter of personality. In Moonlight Mile, Angie and Patrick make a welcome return, only this time, they’re married, with a kid of their own, and a case that they thought was done and buried–the one that caused a major rift between them in the first place–has reared its ugly head again. I had read somewhere that Lehane was done with Angie and Patrick, and that we wouldn’t likely see them again after the last book they appeared in, and although I knew that things weren’t likely to feel good, I snatched up the book the minute I could, if only because a day spent in the company of Angie and Patrick is a pleasure not to be denied.
Patrick is funny. He always has a snappy comeback, and they’re the best when he’s in the company of Angie, who sends his heart into palpitations even after so many years together. They’re deeply in love, and the way that Patrick describes the strangest parts of Angie’s body–her arms, for instance, parts that wouldn’t usually be considered romantic–are wonderfully evocative.
Angie is truly hard-boiled. She’s had a rough time of life, although some would argue that being married to your best friend is the most awesome kind of reward, and enough to erase all doubts and hurts from a previous life, but you forget that the best friend is part and parcel of the reason Angie is so deeply hurt in the first place.
The critical, most interesting part about these two characters is that they grow. They have changed and evolved over the years that we’ve known them, and that makes getting to know them even more of a treat. These are people you could easily hang out at a bar with (it’s something Patrick and Angie did a lot, before they had their kid). I could sit down and discuss, with another reader, the way they’ve changed over the years, and an eavesdropper might not even know that we were talking about fictional characters. The conversation might go something like this.
“So…what’s doing in the Kenzie-Gennaro world?”
“Oh, I dunno. They seem all right. I spent fricken eight hours with them the other day.”
“Wait, didn’t they have a kid recently?”
“Dude, that was like, four years ago. But yeah, she’s a handful. She seems to be a real spitfire.”
“Oh, so she’s just like her mom then. But wait, whatever happened with Patrick, and his gig at that security firm?”
“Oh, God, that thing is such a clusterf*ck. They keep on stringing him along and not giving him the permanent position he needs.”
“So what are they doing with health insurance?”
“Oh, I think Angie’s gone back to school for her master’s, and she found some kind of cut rate insurance for students and their families, or something.”
“That’s crazy. God, I hope he manages to find a better place to work.”
…See? Ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who also happen to get themselves into extraordinary circumstances that then necessitate extraordinary action.
So why do I mention all of this? Lehane’s latest book is mostly classic Lehane: emotional strife, questionable motives, dark underbelly of South Boston. It’s not until late in the book that the thing starts to descend into Carl Hiasson-like hilarity, with the help of a Russian mobster with a quirky sense of humor that seems tailor-made to bounce off of Patrick’s repartee. Look, I’m not saying it wasn’t pleasant. But it definitely reeked of humor, and the reader gets less of Lehane’s finely wrought sense of drama.
However, the characterization is still spot-on. Moonlight Mile is a testament to how important characters can be in a book. They have the power to keep you coming back, even if you’re not sure you want to be in that world anymore.
The ending to this Gennaro/Kenzie mystery, if not exactly in line with Lehane’s previous books in the series, was infinitely satisfying. I did not want to crawl into a hole and die. But hey, that’s okay: People change.