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.
* * * * *
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:
Funny that you'd use MYSTIC RIVER as an example, David. I borrowed the book from the library the first time I read it, then bought a copy as soon as I was finished. I knew I'd be reading it again.
A novel I've revisited more than once is Lawrence Block's WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES. Because it's a memory piece, the tone different from anything else in Block's Matt Scudder series. Because it balances the stories of two different and wholly unrelated crimes perfectly. Because it nails some essentials about male friendships. Ultimately, because it's a hell of a book.
Currently, I'm reading the books I hauled home from Bouchercon and the ones that I ordered through Amazon, because the book room was out. Calling it an eclectic mix is an understatement, but so far I'm enjoying the ride.
At the moment, I'm halfway through Seth Harwood's JACK WAKES UP. It's reminds me a little of Get Shorty, but I'm not certain why, yet . . . though Jack is sort of the anti-Chili.
But I've always re-read all the Robert B Parker books for comfort and Terry Pratchett's Commander Vimes arc if I'm in the mood for excellent political/military/law enforcement satire.
(my favorite Gangnam dance video involves Star Wars Stormtroopers–I am a simple people)
Lehane's A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR, Child's KILLING FLOOR, and Crais's THE MONKEY'S RAINCOAT. When I'm looking for inspiration or craft, I always reread their first works because – ultimately – whichever manuscript I'm seeking help or inspiration for will, by definition, be my first. I could learn plenty by rereading their 8th published manuscript, but I feel like what they managed in their first is what I need to meet and exceed, and then I can worry about editing and improving it beyond that.
I'm a big re-reader; I reread much more often than I reach for new books. Mystic River is one of mine, too. Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, lots of early Stephen King, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Witching Hour, a lot of the Harry Bosch books, a lot of Reacher, a lot of Tess Gerritsen. And Hamlet.
And why aren't we teaching dance in ALL the prisons?
I recently re-read TMR, too, and was once again blown away. I think it has one of the most perfect opening sentences of any book I've read. “ When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them.” Stench and chocolate aren't two words you hear in close proximity very often, if at all, and the separate connotations are immediate and distinct. Sets up the rest of the story rather well.
Vince: I'm a big fan of SACRED GINMILL as well, though I've not yet had the chance to go back and re-read it. His use of the Dave Von Ronk tune, "Last Call," as a touchstone was brilliant and heartbreaking. Have you heard the tune? Predictably, you can't get it on iTunes, but I'm sure you can track it down somewhere.
Sarah: My late wife was a huge Parker fan, sometimes devouring a book in a single night. Comfort. Exactly. (I haven't seen the stormtrooper gangam style — I have some googling in my future.)
Jake: That's an interesting point about first novels. There's often a reckless daring and seat-of-the-pants exuberance to first novels that subsequent work doesn't equal. You make grand mistakes that somehow work. It's a great reminder that the perfect is the enemy of the good. And it's always better to be daring than dull. (That said, the first novels you mentioned are all incredible debuts.)
Alex: Horror, Harry, and Hamlet, with a Reacher palette cleanser. Not a bad mix. As far as teaching dancing in prisons, it seems the American zeitgeist turned against rehab in the 1980s and we haven't seen much of it since. The Puritan ethos is nowhere as fierce as in the penal system.
Kris: Agreed on the first sentence. Like so much of the book, it does its work without jumping up and down. The oblique, offhanded, even gentle way Lehane introduces the novel's theme through that sentence is brilliant. One more lesson to carry away from the book.
The other good thing about reading early novels by authors you admire is realizing the degree they were influenced by their literary heroes. Lehane has always been honest about the fact that DRINK is massively influenced by Parker, for example and it’s fascinating to see that influence dance around the book as Lehane’s themes and voice emerge. (of course, by the time you get to MYSTIC it’s a whole new day.)
I have several friends who like Mystic River (the film) and so do I but, to be honest, no one has ever mentioned the script to me. They're all fans of the performances. That's a really interesting –and true– critique of the movie.
There's a line near the end of the film, uttered by Sean (Kevin Bacon), to the effect that all three of them ended up in that car and are still there, but it feels as tacked on as Annabeth's (Laura Linney's) Lady Macbeth vamp with Jimmy at around the same spot in the film.
Lehane does a great job of building Annabeth in the book and the film shortchanges her, so these lines come out of the blue. But again, the character development relies heavily — and brilliantly, imho — on inner life.
The screenwriters knew these character insights were needed, but didn't know how to weave them in to the story, so just stated them outright. Needless to say, this didn't quite work.
Gordon wanted to follow-up on his previous comment, but the spam filter gods are not obliging. Here's what he wanted to add:
All I wanted to add was that the reason I went on the ramble about Lehane to begin with was that I find the fact that Lehane was working through such an obvious influence early on enormously encouraging as a writer.
(You’re right about the Price comparison too, by the way. Lehane’s an awful lot better than he’s credited as being. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that it’s not ‘loud’ prose?)
You chose the right book, David. Mystic River made a huge impact on me. Just a beautifully-written novel. Silence of the Lambs is also a great re-read.
Other books I've read and read again – The Fountainhead, The Sea Wolf, Martin Eden, On the Road, Ham on Rye, Fight Club.
Well, that's quite a spectrum. from the iconoclastic socialist Jack London to the bombastic übercapitalist Ayn Rand, with Bukowski, Kerouac and Palahniuk for a triple-shot testosterone chaser. Quite a brew, taken together.
I almost didn't post here today, but I'm determined to continue my climb up the side of the pit. I hope you don't laugh. I have reread each of the Harry Potter books 6+ times. I don't know why I'm attracted to them as much as I am, but I am. And I get something – not sure what – but I do get something new and valuable each time. I don't want to analyze it. I just want to do it.
I'm sorry to hear of the pit, and the need for determination to climb up the side and out. Thanks for commenting. I think you know I'd never fault your for reading or re-reading anything. You've earned your pleasures. And the test of any book, or story, or poem, or film is its ability to keep delivering. Clearly, Harry does that for you, big time. Something new and valuable each time. That's impressive. Imagine how awful it would be if those books failed to deliver that frisson of sheer enjoyment. Life is short, joy fleeting. Catch it gently in your hands, let it go, catch it again.
Thanks David. You're a reading-writing trouper. I'd tell you about my pit, but I don't want to divert attention from your wonderful blog.
I found "Last Call" in the iTunes Store. It's on "Going Back to Brooklyn" – https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/going-back-to-brooklyn/id300722793
So many things to say about re-reading. It's one of my favorite past-times. I often return to writers I first read as an early adolescent–Tolkien, Poe, Bradbury, Vonnegut; they all continue to inspire me to write. So many more to list, including, Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Woolf, Austen, Joyce…OK, I confess to being unreconstructed English major. More recent inspiration has come from crime fiction writers, but not Lehane. Your analysis of "Mystic River" has moved that novel up my to-be-read list. Someone I return to a lot is James Lee Burke, especially his Robicheaux series. It is sad and beautiful and violent–I look at the series as a long meditation on the nature of violence in American culture.
Thanks for the great writing at Murderati and in your own novels, which will join the ranks of my favorites to re-read.
Thanks for the attaboy, and thanks for the tip on iTunes. It might help if I spelled the artist's name correctly — i.e., VAN Ronk, not Von. Sheesh.
I think Burke and Crumley are the two great modern stylists of crime fiction, though I think Megan Abbott is quickly making a name for herself there.
I wish I had time to go back and re-read Melville and Hemingway, but also George Eliot and the Brontes and Ring Lardner and Frank Norris and Edith Wharton and …
I've been wanting to read Lehane since glomming onto THE WIRE. This excellent take on Mystic River put it at the top of my TBR list. Do you have another favorite Lehane?
Jake (above) sang the praises of the Kinzie/Gennaro series, but though I like those books I think Mystic River remains his best. I've heard very good things about both THE GIVEN DAY, and his latest, LIVE BY NIGHT, but I've not had the pleasure of reading either.
His short story 'Until Gwen' (included in his collection 'Coronado') is also amazing and easilly the most noir thing Lehane has written. Maybe my favourite short story.
I like your comment to a comment about Lehane not being a "loud" writer–his prose has what I hesitate to call a "literary" quality that I associate with deep characterization and attention to atmospheric details. I also loved "Shutter Island." I didn't mind the dramatic twist at the end — in the hands of another author it would have been to easy, cheesy, cheating — he handled it well. I love the way his characters (their interior lives) and the environment work together to create a particular mood that settles over me as I'm reading.
(Another movie adaptation that disappointed…)
Actually, I must defer all praise to Gordon Harries regarding the point about Lehane not being a "loud" writer. But it appears we both agree with him!
I also agree with your typification of Lehane's writing as "deep characterization and attention to atmospheric details." I think he does both brilliantly, and his refusal to show off makes these effects all the more powerful, imho.
Terrific post. I love Mystic River and need to re-read it. I was planning to re-read and take notes on Ross MacDonald's The Chill, and probably still will, but I'll do Mystic River as well.
And I may take that LitReactor course too – finally pushed my law firm until it pushed me back (as I said to my long-suffering husband, for a person who wanted to quit during 2012 but couldn't quite do it this was "the employment version of suicide by cop") and suggested that I take a few months to figure out what I'd like to do next (A LOT of things, thank you) I'm certainly not overworked right now! Use the time well….