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Saturday, January 1st, 2011
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Moonlight Mile

by Dennis Lehane

Like a Rolling Stone

A review by Chris Bolton

Moonlight Mile is Dennis Lehane's return to his roots. Lehane got his start writing a series of well-regarded crime novels involving private detectives (and sometime-lovers) Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. Then in 2001, he published his triumphant Mystic River to great critical acclaim and strong sales, and things changed for Lehane.

Since then, Mystic River has become an equally acclaimed film directed by Clint Eastwood (featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Sean Penn) and Lehane's bestselling follow-up, the Gothic thriller Shutter Island, was recently filmed by Martin Scorsese. Lehane's last book was an even bigger departure: an historical novel called The Given Day, which included Babe Ruth among its real-life cast.

Old-school fans have waited more than a decade for the next Kenzie-Gennaro novel, even as it seemed increasingly unlikely Lehane would return to the series that started it all.

Well, now their wish has come true. Propelled in part, no doubt, by the success of Ben Affleck's film adaptation of Lehane's Gone Baby Gone, Moonlight Mile is so much more than a return to form. It's true what they say, after all, that you can't go home again -- and that goes for novelists as much as anyone.

Lehane seems to have realized this, and doesn't pick up right where he left off in the late '90s, pretending the world hasn't undergone phenomenal changes since then; he sets the new book in the present day. Much has also changed in the lives of Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. For one thing, they're married, after a tumultuous, on-and-off relationship in the earlier books, and they have a young child. Fortunately, they haven't turned into a family detective agency, with the little tyke joining in their investigations. In fact, Kenzie's agency has closed (due in no small part to the Catholic priest sex scandals that have plagued Boston in the last few years) and he's struggling for money as he tries to get hired full-time at a large, prestigious firm that forces him to choke down his class resentment.

It's been 12 years since the events of Gone Baby Gone and... well, there's really no way to describe the plot of Moonlight Mile without spoiling the plot of the earlier book. Suffice it to say the missing little girl was found and is now a missing teenager whose aunt hires Kenzie to find her again.

It's often said that detective novels deal with the ghosts of the past as much as the crimes of the present, and that's certainly true here. Kenzie is in turmoil over a fateful decision he made more than a decade earlier and its ramifications in the life of an innocent girl. Whatever has become of Amanda McCready since then, Patrick Kenzie can't help feeling responsible. The novel provides plenty of reasons for him to feel awful, as its irresistibly compelling story unfolds.

Moonlight Mile is an intriguing book on more than one level. Besides being a cracking whodunit and a white-knuckled thriller, it's also a fascinating examination of Lehane's career. As a young writer, he cut his teeth on the Kenzie-Gennaro books, which had their problems but offered genuine thrills. Now that he's a much more seasoned author, the result is a leaner, more adult novel that casts these beloved characters in newer, more complex shades of gray. The couple's patented banter is still there (and still, at times, a bit too clever for its own good), but with a hint of poignancy around the sharp edges.

With Moonlight Mile, Dennis Lehane reveals himself to be at the peak of his formidable writing skills. This is a hard-charging, fast-paced novel that earns the cliche "unputdownable."

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