Dennis Lehane went Hollywood without selling out. The Dorchester native writes international bestsellers, and some of his novels like “Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River,” and “Shutter Island” became successful movies directed by Oscar winners Ben Affleck, Clint Eastwood, and Martin Scorsese, respectively. Lehane wrote scripts for HBO’s “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire” and adapted one of his short stories into “The Drop,” a tight little thriller with great performances by James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy.
All that movie work is the secret — or not-so-secret — dream of virtually every novelist without tenure. It’s exciting and lucrative, a world apart from the solitary life of a struggling writer and one that Lehane moves through with ease. He relocated to Los Angeles with the goal of becoming a “show runner” of a TV series.
Lehane’s new psychological noir, “Since We Fell,” is a clear statement of his status and his ambitions. It’s a big book with a bright, damaged young woman at its center and a twisty, movie-ready plot that’s a little bit Alfred Hitchcock, a little bit “Shutter Island.” In fact DreamWorks won the film rights in a bidding war two years before publication, with Lehane agreeing to do the screenplay.
In “Since We Fell” Lehane eases into the convoluted story of Rachel Childs, who grew up lonely in the Pioneer Valley under the smothering glare of her mother, Elizabeth, a pop psychologist and best-selling writer. Elizabeth refuses to talk to Rachel about her absent father and leaves her daughter (quite literally as she is killed in a car crash while Rachel is in college) with the belief that no one should be trusted.
Rachel follows that worldview down its natural career path, journalism, and becomes an ace reporter for the Globe, then a rising star at a Boston TV station. She’s edgy and driven, her mother’s daughter, angling for the story that will earn her a network job. When the big break happens, it’s Rachel that snaps while covering an earthquake in Haiti.
“[W]e’re all sick,” she tells the confused anchorman back in Boston who’d asked her about cholera. “We’re lost and sick and we all pretend otherwise but then we all go away.”
The live shot is cut four seconds before Rachel swears on camera but too late to save her career. The meltdown video goes viral; Rachel gets fired, becomes agoraphobic, and somehow attracts a man who seems too good to be true. Suspension, meet disbelief.
Lehane takes his time establishing Rachel’s flinty independence and embraces her contradictions. Smart but credulous, tough yet helpless, she’s an echo of another unreliable Rachel, the one from “The Girl on the Train.” This one doesn’t have alcoholic blackouts but has the same wry attitude and uncertainty about whether what she’s seeing is real.
The dialogue and plotting are typically Lehane sharp, but there’s oddly little sense of place, a stunning departure from the writer who caught Boston’s grit in his Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro novels. The city is nothing more than a backdrop in “Since We Fell,” a set of directions — Columbus to Arlington to Albany to the 93 — that go nowhere. I was so taken aback by the flat descriptions that I went back and reread “Mystic River” to see how unlike its predecessors this book is. The atmosphere he created so memorably in that novel, the history that falls like leaves on a graveyard and makes Boston fertile ground for crime fiction, is replaced by stale descriptions of crowds outside Fenway and industrial decay in Rhode Island.
The pace picks up in the second half once Rachel’s paternity is settled, and the bodies start falling. There’s a confrontation at a remote lodge in the Maine woods, a shootout on a boat and at an abandoned warehouse. Cops talk tough. Lovers commit murder and in the next breath wonder about how many kids they’ll have together. There are cliffhangers. Someone says “I gotta teach you a little forgery” at the end of a chapter and someone says “Help me wash the blood off the deck” at the end of another. Hollywood will love it — there is much to admire and filmmakers are not bound by the book when it comes to creating atmosphere. Some readers, however, especially fans, may feel different about at least that part.
SINCE WE FELL
By Dennis Lehane
Ecco, 432 pp., $27.99
Jeff Baker is a writer and editor in Portland, Ore. His reviews have been published in the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and Seattle Times.