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Mind Games with Dennis Lehane

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With Mystic River Lehane catapulted himself to the top of the thriller psychological and mind-games genre. It must have been a very hard act to follow. With Shutter Island, Lehane almost pulls off the ultimate writer’s coup of going one better. Almost, but not quite; but it is still an extraordinary thriller, well above the median in the genre.

In the summer of 1954, Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule, US Marshall’s are asked to track a female inmate who has, apparently, escaped from a Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The escape seems impossible: the hospital is on Shutter Island, separated by miles of sea and cragged cliffs and buffs from anywhere. Solando was barefoot. The room was locked. There were guards at all exit points. And there is no evidence of her anywhere.

Why was Solanda incarcerated at all? Apparently, she killed her own children (shades of Medea?) and now lives in her own dream world in the Berkshires, treating all around her as postmen, policemen and other seemingly ordinary denizens of a seemingly ordinary life.

There’s nothing ordinary about the hospital, or the island itself. In fact, everything is just a little bit off-kilter, just a shade too extraordinary. About a third of the way through, we find that this is true of Daniels himself — his motives for being there at all are not what we believed. There is definitely something extremely sinister going on behind the scenes at the hospital. Solanda leaves a code, apparent gibberish; but Daniels unravels it and with that unravelling comes the unravelling of his own persona. What really is going on here? Is this some top-secret installation that is permitted to experiment on patients with new drugs and surgical procedures? The two Marshalls are mystified by the stonewalling from the hospital staff: no, they can’t see some records. No, they can’t look at some logs. Everything seems shrouded in mystery: codes; missing records of a recent inmate; the inaccessibility of “Ward C”, spoken of only elliptically and in hushed tones, covertly; a lighthouse that apparently treats sewage, yet is surrounded by an electrified fence and guards.

A hurricane hits the island. Communication goes down, all of it. Now even the ferry back to the mainland is out of the question. Daniels and Aule are stuck here and, it would seem, being slowly driven mad.

Lehane has an uncanny ear for dialogue and conversation. It’s not just accurate. He actually uses to define characters, moods and relationship and to move his plot along. Particularly good is the exchange between Daniels and the hospital director: we are left with several tantalizing glimpses. Does the director have a Nazi past (he “hits his consonants a tad hard”)? Is he some master of the ultimate mind-game?

Similarly, the relationship between Daniels and Aule actually evolves and unfolds mostly through conversation. We learn that Daniels lost his wife in a tragic fire; that Aule is being hounded because of his relationship with a Japanese American woman.

Lehane uses several well-known set-pieces but, to my mind, succeeds in preventing them from becoming mere trite contrivances. The storm sequence, for example, is stunning and yet it’s been done to death (perhaps from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, King Lear, Macbeth or even before). It’s a full-blown hurricane and Daniels is out there on his own, uprooted trees flying past. When it comes to building atmosphere and tension, it just doesn’t get better. There’s a creepiness in the whole set-up that somehows seems to seep deeper and deeper; you’re hooked and you’re chilled. You know, too, that clues are being flung at you and scattered around — but which is the clue and which the red herring?

This is the ultimate mind-game. There’s enough horror and tension here to satiate the most blood thirsty and yet there’s no gun play, no bullets whanging around and the body count is next to zero. Much of this might have been contrived in other hands, but Lehane deals his cards deftly — dropping just enough to keep the reader off-balance while he sinks his hook in deeper. Even the title is a giveaway you realize only too late: why Shutter Island? Is this the mind’s shutter? Or one in a camera that catches discrete, disjointed images?

The denouement is stunning in itself but, finally, slightly disappointing. Not very many writers in the genre can sustain such a high note of mesmerizing horror and tension. Thomas Harris did it, once, with The Silence of the Lambs and, I thought, with Hannibal, but there are plenty of people who would disagree with that assessment. The difference is that Harris created a single monster and allowed him to sprawl, with the utmost depravity, indulging his every exquisite obscenity, over several books. While also playing mind-games, Harris throws in a more than generous serving of bloodiness, especially in Hannibal which lacks the subtlety of Lambs, almost as if Harris is saying well, look, see how well I can do this, too. Sequence after sequence in Hannibal scales new heights of grotesquery: being eaten alive by wild pigs or boars, raised for just that to the sound of blood curdling screaming; a man who skins his own face under the ‘gentle’ persuasion of the good Dr Lecter Hannibal; the doctor’s dissection (live, of course) in a church or museum of a cop who gets too close; and the truly extraordinary finale that seems to me to redefine obscenity: when Hannibal serves up a gourmet meal of brain, prepared absolutely fresh, except that it’s human brain and he is performing a lobotomy even as he cooks. I believe this is one of the reasons Jodie Foster refused to do the film and even Riddley Scott knocked it off and substituted it with an altogether weaker self-mutilation — a sort of self-sacrificial offering that was supposed to accentuate Hannibal’s finer sensibilities but only succeeded in weakening the entire structure.

This is perhaps easier to do than what Lehane sets out to achieve. After all, the sheer shock value of a Harrisian set up can drive you through far enough. It’s much more difficult to put a dampener on the book and still lift it out of the ordinary. Lehane very nearly pulls it off, and misses only narrowly. I’m not quite sure why. It’s shocking enough, in its own way, but not, I think, adequately ambiguous. There’s a good ten pages or more in which the reader is allowed to acclimatize and there follows a sense of inevitability. This is thin line, certainly, a delicate balance between mere contrivance and plausibility. Lehane seems anxious to avoid the former but, in the bargain, might just have compromised the book, ever so slightly. But this is perhaps just cavilling, and not reason enough to skip the book.

Musings of a suist in mufti on books, music and film at Bibliophage; Gravity Denied – The Hidden Paw’s Blog at mcavity.com

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About Gautam Patel

Mumbai-based lawyer and weekly columnist for a local newspaper.