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Author Dennis Lehane plumbs depths of human misunderstanding in 'Mystic River'

Years after the fact, an ugly crime claims new victims

The plot of Dennis Lehane's latest book,
The plot of Dennis Lehane's latest book, "Mystic River," revolves around three tragic heroes who struggle to make sense of a murder  

In this story:

Three tragic figures

A cop, a con, a time bomb

Trying, failing to communicate

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- After writing a fifth book in his increasingly successful Kenzie-Gennaro series, Boston crime novelist Dennis Lehane decided to give those characters a rest. He'd pursue a stand-alone novel, one that had been banging around in his head for years.

Originally, it had been a novella for his master's thesis, a little story about a cop named Sean that he dubbed "Mystic River." He decided to expand the story, using a third-person storytelling style involving multiple narrative viewpoints.

The result of that simple decision is a 400-page book for William Morrow that is anything but simple, a story filled with people who are convinced they are doing the right thing, and who are utterly mistaken.

"Mystic River" uses the whodunit premise to delve deeply into the conundrum of how people who are supposedly "close" are actually as far from one another as distant planets whirling through the void. It's the 35-year-old author's most ambitious effort to date.

Three tragic figures

Lehane began writing mysteries during his fine-writing studies at Eckerd College and Florida International University, and those efforts led to his first novel, "A Drink Before the War" (Harcourt, 1994).

That first manuscript impressed New York literary agent Ann Rittenberg.

"I assumed he was older," Rittenberg said recently at her New York office. "Then I found out he was 25 and this was his first book. I asked him to become my client, and we've been together ever since."

The novel represented a big step for the author, too. "Coming from the world I was in, writing very esoteric short fiction ... I knew exactly what boundary I was stepping over," Lehane said during a recent interview in his home. "I was leaving one camp and stepping into another."

He stepped convincingly, too, producing five novels in the Kenzie-Gennaro series: "A Drink Before the War" (1994); "Darkness, Take My Hand" (1996); "Sacred" (1997); "Gone, Baby, Gone" (1998); and "Prayer for Rain" (1999).

In his sixth book, Lehane has created three tragic heroes who struggle to make sense of a murder.

At the novel's opening in 1975 in fictitious Buckingham, Massachusetts, three children, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus and Dave Boyle, are play-fighting in the streets when they are accosted by two "cops" in a brown car. Dave, the weakest of the three, is singled out and abducted, returning four days later.

No one speaks of it, no one acknowledges it, and the child's return is the excuse for a block party.

"In the Flats, half the people didn't have lawns, and the fences sagged," Lehane writes. "When you wanted to party, you partied, because ... you sure as hell deserved it."

A cop, a con, a time bomb


Fast forward to the present. Sean is a burned-out state cop, whose estranged wife calls him in the middle of the night and says nothing. Jimmy is a quietly menacing ex-con who wants to leave his criminal past behind him but refuses to give up his affiliations with neighborhood gangsters. And Dave has denied his childhood trauma in a manner which, from the novel's outset, makes readers aware that he is a ticking time bomb.

All three are in vigorous denial of their own pasts, as well as the awful childhood secret that binds them together.

And all three are yanked back into uncomfortable proximity with each other when Jimmy's teen-aged daughter is found shot and bludgeoned to death in a state park.

Sean is anything but a supercop. A failed marriage, a suspension and an inability to make sense of the world around him have all but derailed the trooper's career. The deeper he gets into the case, the less sense it makes. He is beset with conflicting forensic evidence, lack of motive for the slaying and, worst of all, his partner's rabid hunches concerning both Jimmy and Dave, neither of whom Sean wants to get mixed up with again.

Jimmy is just as lost. He is torn between his desire to be a warm, loving father who wants to pick up the pieces of his life, and the calculating iceman who dominates his emotional shadows. The gradual weakening of Jimmy's moral self increases the tension of the plot, a condition exacerbated by Jimmy's unsettling calm in the face of family crisis.

But by far the most complex and horrifying character is Dave, whose childhood trauma has slowly split his personality in two. He knows it, too, and the one instance that might be interpreted as his cry for help is quickly silenced in the dark world of Buckingham.

Trying, failing to communicate

"Dave has a moment when he's young where he tries to talk to his mother, who just shuts him down," Lehane said. "From that point on, Dave had to create someone else; that's where his problems begin. That's the tragedy of his character: He's been hiding it for too long. He doesn't know himself."

The war in Dave's head, in a nutshell, is the mystery behind the mystery of "Mystic River," a place where people do not admit that they do not understand themselves -- and by extension, do not comprehend those around them.

No characters in "Mystic River" really get to the festering heart of the matter until it is too late. They are too confounded by the ugly truths in their own pasts, and no one is capable of reconciling his or her own false lives.

As such, "Mystic River" is a crime novel which both uses and transcends genre to address basic questions at the heart of the human soul, a place often much darker than we care to admit.

Dennis Lehane
William Morrow (HarperCollins)

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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