The young couple with the sleeping baby had waited in line for nearly an hour at Brookline Booksmith to stand at the table where Dennis Lehane was signing copies of his new novel, “Live by Night.”
“We want to get him started on this pulp stuff as early as possible,” the woman said, looking down at her infant. “We’re huge fans of yours.”
Lehane smiled. If he was bothered by the term “pulp” – a pejorative in some literary circles — to describe his sprawling Prohibition-era epic of bad cops, booze, and broads, he didn’t let on.
“Does it occasionally irk me? Sure,” he admitted later. “It’s like I’m not literary enough for the literary crew, and I’m not pulpy enough for the pulp crew. I’m not sure what I am.”
For a best-selling author who’s seen three of his novels — “Mystic River,” “Gone, Baby, Gone,” and “Shutter Island” — turned into big-budget Hollywood movies, it’s a curious statement that confirms what many of his peers already know: Lehane has literary ambitions beyond hardboiled crime fiction. Not content just to be a purveyor of entertaining pulp, the Dorchester native is turning the page, trying his hand at stories with a grander historical sweep.
“With each book, he’s hunting bigger and bigger game, and making it look easy,” said novelist Richard Russo, author of “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls.”
That would be high praise for anyone, but especially a guy whose parents emigrated from Ireland with an elementary education.
There’s no private-school pedigree with Lehane, no tortured artist act. Clutching a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee near the site of the former Charlestown State Prison, a place Joe Coughlin, the central character of “Live by Night,” calls home for a few grim years, Lehane says he writes because it’s all he can do.
“The faucet is always open,” he said, tugging at the collar of his black hooded sweatshirt. “Whatever that thing is where it’s just spilling out of you, I have it. It’s a gift, I guess.”
It started early, with little stories scribbled in notebooks. Lehane’s late father was a shipping-and-receiving supervisor for Sears Roebuck, and his mother worked in a school cafeteria. They didn’t consider writing to be a viable career option, but Lehane, the youngest of five, says his parents were supportive in their own way.
“They were very traditional, Irish Catholic parents. When you walked into the house, it was 1930s Ireland. They weren’t fuzzy, huggy, let’s-chat-this-out types,” said Lehane said. “My parents’ big thing was ‘We’re going to protect you from this world as much as we can and try to keep you on the straight and narrow.’ ”
On the streets of Dorchester in the 1970s, amid the protests and riots that characterized Boston’s busing crisis, that was no small accomplishment. It would have been easy for Lehane to go sideways, and plenty of kids in the neighborhood did, but he kept his head down — and his eyes and ears open.
“It was a time of huge upheaval, and Dennis was very absorbent, very observant,” says Lehane’s brother Gerry, an actor in New York. “Even as a kid, he took a lot of it in — issues of class and race — and that shows up in his books.”
He enrolled at — and dropped out of — both Emerson College and UMass Boston before attending Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., and, later, the creative-writing program at Florida International University. He was fiercely focused on his writing, he said, because the prospect of failure was terrifying.
“Where I came from, there was no net,” Lehane told an audience at the Coolidge Corner Theatre earlier this month. “If I was going back to Dorchester as a failed writer, I was going to be tending bar at The Banshee with some guy yelling, ‘Yo, Hemingway, bring me another beer.’ ”
He worked hard in graduate school but also found it frustrating. Lehane was weary of the trends — popular among his classmates — toward navel-gazing, autobiographical stuff or stories of suburban ennui, stories that all seemed to him like imitations of Richard Yates’s classic “Revolutionary Road.”
“You gotta be [expletive] kidding me,” said Lehane, who can sometimes sounds like a character in one of his books. “Another story about white people in a kitchen in Connecticut talking about their malaise?”
Then along came “Clockers,” Richard Price’s 1992 best-seller about drug pushers and police in a dead-end New Jersey town. Lehane knew the landscape; he recognized the dealers, customers, and cops, and he reveled in the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue.
“Clockers,” combined with the gritty, tough-guy fiction of James Crumley, James Ellroy, and James Lee Burke, helped Lehane find his voice.
“I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” But he also caught some grief for it, he said, “because ‘plot’ is a dirty word in a lot of graduate writing programs,” he says. “People were, like, ‘You wrote a mystery? Good luck.’ ”
Good luck, indeed. It took Lehane a few years to sell his first novel, “A Drink Before the War,” but critics liked it, and five more books featuring fictional Boston-based detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro followed. (One of them, “Gone, Baby, Gone,” became a movie directed by Ben Affleck.)
Lehane took a break from the series in 2001 to write “Mystic River,” a bleak and punishing story about three Irish-American friends, one of whom harbors an awful secret.
Clint Eastwood’s movie based on the book earned six Academy Award nominations, making Lehane not only a wealthy man — “Mystic River” has sold nearly 850,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan — but something of a commodity. When George Pelecanos, the producer and writer of “The Wire,” was looking for another writer for the popular HBO show, he called Lehane.
“Dennis has a sense of story and dialogue that’s like crack to Hollywood,” says Pelecanos. “And the treatment of women in his books is unique. It’s more enlightened than a lot of practitioners. Dennis obviously likes them — and not just in the sack.”
Lehane’s ambition might also set him apart. “Live by Night” and 2009’s “The Given Day” — a book Russo casually calls “the best novel published that year” — have a historical sweep that his earlier work doesn’t, while still dealing with the social issues that interest him, including race, poverty, and violence.
He goes beyond gumshoes in “The Given Day,” which is about the Boston police strike of 1919, and in “Live by Night,” a 1920s gangster/love story that Leonard DiCaprio and Affleck plan to make into a movie.
“I think Dennis is getting impatient with the artificial limits put on ‘crime fiction,’ ” says writer Tom Perrotta, author of “Little Children” and “The Leftovers.”
“Dennis is in the first rank of hardboiled crime writers, but he seems to be moving into this other category, with people like E.L. Doctorow, of socially-engaged historical fiction.”
While the response to Lehane’s recent work has been generally positive, there are skeptics.
“Lehane has picked up the big lumber and is swinging for the fences. But does he have the power to hit the long ball?” John Freeman wrote in The New York Times in 2008.
“ ‘The Given Day’ may not be the ecstatic ‘yes’ its scope implies — it’s too long, and peopled by too many cartoonish villains — but it does represent a huge leap forward for Lehane.”
Asked about such critiques, Lehane says writers with a more literary bent haven’t been quick to embrace him.
“Reading between the lines of all the reviews of ‘The Given Day,’ it was, like, ‘We’re not [expletive] giving him this. He’s not getting into the club,’ ” says Lehane, who will speak at the Boston Book Festival this weekend. “But that’s OK.”
If success has changed him at all, Lehane says he’s more “domesticated.” He and his wife, Angie, an optometrist, have two young children and split their time between Brookline and a place in St. Petersburg. (Lehane’s first marriage ended in divorce more than a decade ago.)
Though hardly a teetotaler, he drinks less than he used to, has quit smoking, and is exercising for the first time. He’s made a few Hollywood friends — Sean Penn is one — but is more likely to be at home than out partying.
Lehane rents a small office in the South End, where he writes every day from 7 a.m. to noon. While he rarely suffers from “low battery,” or writer’s block, some days are better than others.
Dialogue and action tend to be easy, but furnishing an empty room and filling it with people can be a struggle. In “Live by Night,” Lehane says he wrestled with the description of the 1927 opening-night party of the Statler Hotel.
“I had to paint that [expletive] scene,” he says. “That’s hard for me because it just lays there. Those three pages took me weeks.”
Other times, it’s the story itself that sets him back.
“If you do this job right, there should be days that are really hard,” says Lehane. “When I wrote the scene in ‘Mystic River’ where I had to become somebody who’s sexually attracted to a 12-year-old boy, holy God, that was horrible. I shut down for a week after that.”
Next up is the sequel to “Live by Night,” and a screenplay based on one of his short stories.
Lehane’s also working on a television series for FX, overseeing his own imprint for publisher HarperCollins, and serving as a trustee for the Boston Public Library, which he credits for kick-starting his life.
“As [novelist] Harry Crews used to tell his writing students: If you can stop, stop,” says Lehane. “I can’t stop.”