Walter Mosley. George P. Pelecanos. Michael Connelly. Dennis Lehane. These are the children of James Ellroy: urban neorealists, violence-obsessed journalists, and Jacob Riis-inspired reformers. Others dance on the outskirts of their circle, but these are the core of the new noir, the ones who paint a sweeping picture of what it is to be poor and city-bound in America.
Mosley’s period Los Angeles swims in romance and racial outrage. Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., is hard-boiled into rock. Connelly’s present-day L.A. glistens with blood and glitz. And Lehane — well, Lehane has long been the prize bull. Steeped in the blue-collar Boston of his upbringing and armed with the tenderness of his experience as a children’s counselor, he conjures a world that is both dreamy and gritty, booze-soaked and almost impossibly warm.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood has noticed these four, with Connelly ranking as the most recent victim. The word choice is intentional — while Connelly’s Blood Work featured a rich plot and sharp cop-speak, Clint Eastwood’s movie adaptation last year was plodding and almost embarrassing. The movie was a true disservice, because Connelly has written some wildly entertaining books well worth rereading. Unfortunately, his new effort, Lost Light, isn’t one of them.
It’s not hard to guess why. Like a lot of writers trying to capitalize on growing success, Connelly has begun publishing at a frightening rate: This is his fourth book in the past two years and his ninth Harry Bosch mystery. In Lost Light, Connelly’s crusty L.A. detective finds himself a retired man with too much time on his hands. So Bosch becomes obsessed with cold cases, including the murder of a woman connected to the robbery of $2 million from a movie set. (And no, nobody from Heather Graham’s camp was involved.) The plot twists are entertaining, but the novel tastes like meatloaf that needs more time in the oven. And as long as we’re talking food, a bit more writerly garnish wouldn’t have hurt either.
So should fans of nouveau noir look instead to Lehane’s much-anticipated new book, which hits bookstores on April 15? Lehane has yet to write a bad book. His last, Mystic River, made EW’s top 10 list for 2001 and was a massive leap forward from his popular mysteries. Set in a fictional Boston neighborhood, Mystic River blends class, romance, and hurt, and showcases all the best instincts of his peers. (It too will get the Eastwood treatment, for better or worse.)
Thus it is with glee that the crime-mystery set has awaited his newest, which Lehane announced would be titled Missing Dolores and set in the Mystic River universe. But before you pen in an April 15 bookstore visit (or preorder the novel online), keep a couple of things in mind. For starters, the new book is actually titled Shutter Island. And it’s set in a mental hospital in the 1950s. And it’s good, but it’s not everything a fan could hope for.
The story takes place at the height of the Cold War. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is sent to an institution for the criminally insane on an island off the coast of Boston to investigate a disappearance. He and his new partner are digging into the secrets of the island — which appears to be the site of mind-control experiments and assorted creepy whatnot — when they are trapped by a hurricane. The two men are separated, and Daniels begins to lose it. Hallucinating. Getting paranoid. Sneaking about and tussling with inmates. The questions are old hat: How does the mind deal with trauma? Who’s really insane? Is the government out to get Daniels, or is he paranoid? Or both?
It’s hoary stuff, watermarked and worn and familiar to anyone with a taste for B movies. (Tellingly, The Perfect Storm director Wolfgang Petersen has already optioned this novel.) Lehane has spoken in the past about his affection for Graham Greene’s habit of mixing ”novels” and ”entertainments.” There is something admirable — and considering the difficulty in grabbing readers, maybe even important — about drawing such distinctions. Unfortunately, Lehane’s foray into psychological suspense doesn’t hold the pop pleasures of his detective books. Shutter Island entertains just fine, but its impact evaporates the minute you turn the last page. For hardcore fans seeking a literary encore to Mystic River, the wait continues.