When I was trying to learn how to write, I took a course from Tom Jenks, formerly with Scribner’s (where he was responsible for editing Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden for posthumous publication) and currently the main force behind Narrative magazine.
One of the most important things I learned from Tom was that it was better to go back and re-read books that had a profound effect on you, or which you considered particularly excellent, instructive, or inspiring, than to be broadly read. It’s advice I’ve taken to heart, particularly since my writing career has so profoundly curtailed my time to read for pleasure.
It’s good to know that when I do read for the sheer enjoyment of it, I’m going to read something I know will scratch that particular itch.
One such book I picked up again recently was Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. This was my first re-reading, and I was amazed at how much more I enjoyed it the second time through. I wasn’t reading for story, I was reading to see how Lehane did certain things, and how many he did well.
His pacing is both leisurely and taut, not easy to do. You never feel rushed but you never feel like you’re meandering, either.
His prose evokes a profound emotional connection and also provides a vivid pictorial image without being showy.
His command of setting is as deft as Richard Price’s—high praise. I was awestruck by how intimately he knew these neighborhoods, and captured them for the reader. I know, he grew up near there, but familiarity isn’t enough. You’ve got to know what to include, what to leave out, and in both cases why.
His female characters are fascinating and rendered beautifully on the page.
His understanding of cops and how they work—more importantly, how they think and talk—is unparalleled.
And these last two points are part of a larger one: I don’t know a writer who captures the inner life of his characters as vividly, intimately, and movingly as Lehane does here. This skill isn’t prized the way it used to be. Screenwriting, an affliction a great many of us now suffer from, has taught us to emphasize what can be seen and heard, not thought or felt—or worse, explained.
There’s a lot to be said for that approach. Dramatic writing, relying on what characters do and say, benefits from the power it brings to the depiction of conflict.
But there are moments in Mystic River when a character is alone with his or her own mind and heart that are simply some of the most moving I’ve come across on the page in quite some time.
They’re the kind of moments that are all but impossible to capture on film, which is one of the reasons I’ve always found the film version of Mystic River wanting. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie. But I didn’t love it the way I loved the book.
So much of the pleasure of the book resides inside the character’s skulls, which is invisible to the camera. In particular, I thought the women characters were robbed of the subtle interiority that made them so compelling on the page.
That also contributes to another problem I have with the film, one that the story mage John Truby discussed in an online essay discussing story structure in which he used Mystic River, Intolerable Cruelty, and Runaway Jury as his examples.
His chief complaint about Mystic River’s screenplay goes as follows:
Mystic River uses the classic technique of showing the three lead characters as boys, when one of them is molested. The rest of the story therefore has to turn on how one boy's ghost haunts all the boys as adults. But this central connection is never made. Yes, the molested boy, Dave, is a broken man. But the other two, Sean and Jimmy, seem to be no different than they were as kids. And Dave's horror has no real effect on them as adults.
In the book, we see more clearly how Dave’s molestation has affected both Sean and Jimmy.
One of the most moving scenes in the first part of the book—a scene I’d largely forgotten until I re-read it—portrays Jimmy’s profound isolation and his yearning for female affection, not just from his fragile, troubled mother, but from his teacher who lavishes attention on Dave when he reappears after his abduction.
Jimmy’s the toughest of the three friends, which is what makes his longing so interesting. His desire for this kind of attention is so profound he fantasizes that it was him, not Dave, who got into the strangers’ car that day. That need for female validation defines Jimmy’s capacity for staying straight as an adult, and it explains why his daughter’s murder so deeply unhinges him. More importantly, it provides the connection of shame and perverse envy that links Jimmy’s youthful longing with the vengeful hatred he feels toward Dave as an adult.
As for Sean, he was the one who got out. His dad was a foreman at the Coleman candy plant, responsible for firing Jimmy’s dad, and Sean has never looked back after leaving East Buckingham. But that superiority was built on circumstance, not character. And the issue of luck plays out to tragic consequences when he’s unable to solve the murder of Jimmy’s daughter in time. It was luck that kept him out of that car as a boy, luck that got him out of East Bucky—and now, thirty years later, luck that draws him back in and, this time, turns against him.
It’s an old complaint, a great book ill served by its film adaptation. But I didn’t appreciation exactly why I so preferred the book until I went back and read through those pages again.
But then, I forget a lot of things these days.
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So, Murderateros—what book(s) do you re-read, for inspiration, education, or just the sheer pleasure of it?
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Also, a little publicity for a new 4-week online course I’ll be teaching next month through LitReactor, called:
The Spine of Crime: Setting, Suspense and Structure in Crime, Mystery, and Thriller Stories
I’m expanding from the Who of crime to the What, Where, and How, with detailed lectures and manuscript review of student projects.
If you or someone you know might be interested, find out more here.
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: The inmates (male and female) of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, the Philippines, doing their astonishing dance routine to Psy’s Gangam Style: