Dennis Lehane is done writing whodunits.
”I’d say it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever write another one,” says the best-selling author of five Patrick Kenzie detective mysteries, including Gone Baby Gone, which was made into a movie last year by Ben Affleck. ”I was never comfortable with them anyway. I’d be writing these friggin’ whodunits,” he laughs, getting excited, ”and I could care less. I wanna tell everybody on page 2, he killed so-and-so, he done it! If you look at my books in that regard — and I’ll be 100 percent honest about my flaws — you can see how I was whipping out the kitchen sink just to obscure s—, like the identity of the serial killer or whatever, and that’s why the books got so labyrinthian in the last 100 pages.”
After Prayers for Rain, his last Kenzie novel, Lehane wrote Mystic River — technically a whodunit, though it felt much richer — in 2001, followed by the Gothic thriller Shutter Island in 2003.
Now, after five years of back-breaking work (”it sucked”), the 43-year-old Beantown native reinvents himself with The Given Day, a 700-page historical epic set against the backdrop of Boston’s 1919 policemen’s strike and packed with cops, anarchists, and real-life figures (Babe Ruth, Eugene O’Neill), as well as romance, action, and high drama. About the only thing it doesn’t include is a murder mystery.
”I wanted the book to be a love letter to the city and this particular neighborhood,” says Lehane. He’s sitting on the balcony of his new apartment in Boston’s North End, the Old North Church of Paul Revere ”one if by land” fame not far in the distance. ”And I’ve always wanted to do a big sweeping epic. When I was a kid, if I saw a movie was four hours long, I wanted to see it. Godfather II is my favorite movie.”
The Given Day, though a departure, also carries on Lehane’s tradition of blending pulp and literary fictions. ”Bottom line?” he says. ”You have to tell the story first. Then you can build anything you want on it.” One of Lehane’s idols, Lush Life author Richard Price, approves. ”A couple of people transcend their genre, and Dennis is one of them,” Price says. ”I’ve read The Given Day. It was a monumental challenge, to capture an entire lost world and have it resonate off the current situation with 9/11. He birthed a cow here.”
Lehane worked with Price on HBO’s The Wire; they each wrote several episodes (”Everybody on the show feels season 4 was our best,” says Lehane). And currently Lehane is plugging away on a potential TV series set during the early ’70s in Boston. Meanwhile, on the feature-film front, life is sweet. After Clint Eastwood homered with Mystic River, and Ben Affleck nailed Gone Baby Gone, Martin Scorsese is turning Shutter Island into another Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle for next year, and Sam Raimi has already optioned The Given Day for the screen. Lehane is bowled over: ”I just keep falling ass-backwards into luck with this stuff!”
As for books, next up is probably a sequel to The Given Day (he envisions a trilogy). And yes, mystery fans, Lehane thinks he really is done with Patrick Kenzie. ”My publishers, they’ve been clear if I ever wrote one, they’d back a truckful of money onto my driveway, but I don’t want to be the guy who goes back to the well just so I could buy another house,” says Lehane. ”Those were a young man’s books, and I was using Patrick as my doppelgänger during my 20s and 30s. Now he’d just piss me off. It’s like, ‘Grow up, dude!”’