Having written five novels about a pair of Boston private investigators, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, Dennis Lehane has acquired a solid rep among mystery fans as a hard boiled heavyweight, pounding out work as emotionally complex and genre bending as that of James Lee Burke or James Crumley. (If you’re new to Lehane and want to sample a Kenzie- Gennaro mystery, I'd go with 1998's steel nerved ''Gone, Baby, Gone.'')
However, with his new novel Mystic River, Lehane explores different fictional terrain. Abandoning his series characters for the moment, he instead tells the story of three childhood friends, and how both their youth and their friendship were taken from them in a single day.
The book begins one morning in 1975, when three rowdy, aimless 11 year old boys are enticed by a couple of men to get into a car; only one of the kids, Dave Boyle, does, and the car -- ''the kind police detectives drove, a Plymouth or something'' -- drives off. When the other two boys, Jimmy Marcus and Sean Devine, are later questioned by the cops about Dave’s abduction, they can say only that the car ''smelled like apples'' -- the trauma rendered in a surreally poetic image.
Four days later, Dave abruptly reappears, having given his abductors names in his head (''Big Wolf'' and ''Greasy Wolf'') and offering nothing but silence to quell the questions and rumors raging through his dingy Massachusetts hometown. Shunned -- assumed to be the victim of a molestation that some crueler children suggest may have been consensual -- Dave's life is as good as over, but it's not.
Lehane then jumps forward 25 years. Sean's a homicide detective -- a decent if uncommonly wary cop, always second guessing himself; Jimmy's done time for armed robbery, is married, has a 19 year old daughter named Katie, and is doing his best to hold a hardscrabble life together. Neither Sean nor Jimmy has much to do with his old friend. Dave has cobbled together a fragile marriage with Celeste, a wan wife who never asks about the crucial event in her husband's past, and who helps him wash the bloody clothes he brings home one night.
When Jimmy's daughter vanishes and then turns up murdered, Sean is pulled into an investigation that ends up pointing to Dave as the prime suspect. I'm not giving anything away here. ''Mystic River'' -- the title refers to a local spot where weapons and bodies are dumped; where, one character says, ''we bury our sins...we wash them clean'' -- isn't interested in playing by murder mystery rules.
Yet the novel respects those rules enough to give Lehane's expansive portrait of three difficult lives the organizing structure of a thriller. In the midst of the investigation, Sean ruminates on his own ''annoyed acceptance that people sucked, people were dumb and petty bad, often murderously so, and when they opened their mouths they lied, always, and when they went missing for no discernibly good reason, they'd usually be found dead or way the hell worse off.''
It doesn't surprise me to read in interviews that Lehane is an admirer of Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, short story writers whose best work always cut to the narrative chase and often found quiet epiphanies in cold, dank bars and underheated, ramshackle homes. Without overreaching for so much as a paragraph, Lehane locates the rich middle ground between terse literary fiction and the laconic police procedural.
At his most daring in Mystic River, Lehane aims for the plainspoken lyricism of a good acoustic Bruce Springsteen ballad, or the knife edge clarity of an earlier transcendent mystery novelist who wrote about damaged children, Ross Macdonald, and achieves his desired effect: a despair that can occasionally be redeemed by love, or simply confirmed by hard won wisdom.
''It had occurred to Sean once...that maybe they had gotten in that car. All three of them. And what they now thought of as their life was just a dream state. That all three of them were, in reality, still 11 year old boys trapped in some cellar, imagining what they'd become if they ever escaped and grew up.'' In Lehane's books, everyone grows up, but no one escapes.