If morals are relative, is incest a moral act? I’m not playing on words here. I’m asking a serious question. Moral relativism – now let’s talk metaethics. Something is moral or immoral only within a certain set or group; so, police have one set of morals while child molesters have another. In a practicable society, a universal morality overrides any moral relativity (to a certain extent) and nullifies moral nihilism. If Jonathan Swift and William S. Burroughs are moralists, with their curiouser and curiouser investigations into what it means to be human, then Dennis Lehane is a metaethicist, a writer who asks the questions: How can we tell good from bad? Who judges what is right or wrong? And how do we tell one – good/right – from the other – bad/wrong?
Famous for Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone, Baby, Gone (the prequel to Moonlight Mile), Lehane also worked as a screenwriter alongside George Pelecanos and Richard Price for – arguably – the best television series ever screened HBO’s The Wire. For Price’s New York City and Pelecanos’ Washington DC, Lehane gives you his Boston and it’s just as mean, just as dark, just as seedy and corrupt as its urban sisters further south. In Gone, Baby, Gone private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro search for Amanda McCready, a missing four-year-old girl, and encounter dysfunctional families, paedophiles, and police who have lost all sense of their worth and extent of their power. As social and political corruption seeps out, the investigators seem poisoned by it, forcing them to make decisions that may or not be correct. Twelve years on, the girl is missing again. Kenzie and Gennaro, now with a four-year-old daughter of their own, agree to look for Amanda – but where to start?
If any budding thriller writers – no, scrub that, start again… If any budding writers want to know how to write dialogue, build tension in a scene, flesh-out a character with what they do not say, describe them by the things that surround them – kitchen appliances, decals, shopping – then read Chapter Eleven in which Kenzie and Gennaro confront the father of Amanda’s best friend. Not much happens, it’s not what is revealed but what is not; it pinpoints, focuses on, and dissects the post 9/11 buttoned-down, divine command theoretics of America, and the predominance of surface values, cosmetic surgery, hypocrisy. The man in question is a health and exercise guru/fanatic, and Kenzie pops his smug bubble, sticks a pointy veridic pin through the meniscus of the man’s proscriptive moralism, ‘It’s your job and it’s your life choice. Good for you. I hope you live to a hundred and fifty. I just notice people sometimes mistake their life choices for their moral ones.’ The dialogue preceding this about cheeseburgers and the fitness fanatic’s son’s name had me snorting into my PG Tips.
Lehane’s previous novel The Given Day, set in the second decade of the 20th century, epic in scope, ambitious, romantic, mawkish, and violent, is well worth a read. Some critic described it as a cross between Harold Robbins & Don DeLillo – which is just about right. Even though Lehane sometimes overplays the Oirish card, the opening chapter on the ad-hoc baseball game confirms him as one of the best writers around. I’d tilt the balance DeLillo’s way, think ‘Pafko at the Wall’. Moonlight Mile’s narrower focal point and narrative minimalism somehow make it a broader novel. Lehane, not constricted by historical verisimilitude, has fun with his characters and is able to generate – even in scenes of ultraviolence – humour and unsentimental pathos. As Simon Critchley points out, ‘Jokes are forms of abstraction that place in abeyance our usual modes of reaction.’ I’d love to quote the joke about Kindles after the trailer-home mass slaughter but I don’t want to spoil your pleasure.
So, shut up already and tell us the storyline. I hate doing this. But here’s a sketch. Kenzie’s working freelance hoping for a full-time position at the venerable Boston private-investigation company Duhamel-Standiford. His partner Angela Gennaro looks after their daughter Gabby while finishing her Masters in applied sociology. Amanda McCready is missing – she’s brilliant, focused, and sixteen years old. Her mother and her mother’s boyfriend are working identity thefts and cooking up a little crank on the side and Amanda’s best friend Sophie has powder-burned her nose a few too many times with the product. Tweak-tweak. Kenzie’s questioning the three losers when they get a visit from the ‘Russians’. Lehane goes into super-dialogue mode with the Mordovian hitman Yefim, and just the right side of caricature with the Russian mob boss Kirill Borzakov and his psychotic Mexican wife Violeta – think Tony Montana in a pump-action shotgun wedding with Cruella De Vil. The couple from hell want a baby taken from them that came from a baby farm they are running above a movie memorabilia warehouse. Stop for breath – asthma inhaler. Go. The Russians also want the Belarus Cross – a valuable artefact stolen at the same time. Kenzie has doubts about everyone involved. Who’s manipulating the meetings, the near misses, the identities. Along the way, there are shootouts, stand-offs, a Chernobyl mutant wielding a gun and surgical shears in a make-do delivery room. The scene in the trailer home towards the end of the novel is a superb setpiece of violence and story-strand agglomeration.
Lehane nods and winks knowingly to a few contemporaries but doesn’t overdo the intertextuality. This is a smart crime novel, explosive and thoughtful, carrying its issues seriously but lightly, and ranging from family dynamics, the impact of the economy, and personal recriminations to Russian mobs, identity theft, and baby trafficking.
Any Cop?: Lehane’s novels operate within Slavoj Žižek’s definition of morality – concerned with the symmetry of our relations to other humans; and ethics – our consistency with ourselves, our fidelity to our own desire… Ooh, I’ve just come over all Dostoevskian…