Dennis Lehane's 1994 A Drink Before the War marked a big-time debut, and introduced childhood pals turned Boston private eyes PATRICK KENZIE and ANGELA GENNARO. Patrick and Angie grew up in an Irish/Polish/Italian working-class neighbourhood where "your boundaries begin in the schoolyard and last a lifetime," (according to Margaret Cannon), who summed it all up as "a major debut." They now run their dettive agency out of a church where "all manners of unholiness cross their threshold".
Patrick and Angela are on-again, off-again lovers, who nevertheless seem to work well together, although they often seem to rely on Bubba Rogowski, their arms-dealing old school buddy who I find more interesting than either of them, despite his ridiculous name. (Bubba? Sheesh!) He's described by Patrick in A Drink Before the War as "an absolute anachronism in these times -- he hates everything and everybody except Angie and myself, but unlike others of similar inclination, he doesn't waste any time thinking about it. He doesn't write letters to the editor or hate mail to the president, he doesn't form groups or stage marches or consider his hate as anything other than a completely natural aspect of his world, like breathing or the shot glass. Bubba has all the self-awareness of a carburetor and takes even less notice of anyone else--unless they get in his way. He's six feet four inches, 235 pounds of raw adrenaline and disassociated anger. And he'd shoot anyone who blinked at me the wrong way."
Personally, I wasn't convinced. In the first novel, I found the characters seemed just too much like characters, if you know what I mean, and subsequent novels seem to have wandered all over the stylistic map, nipping into the serial killer genre here, borrowing a little David and Maddy from Moonlighting there (albeit in a suitably hard-boiled way, of course). A lot of violence, and overblown plots full of child abusers, rapists, wife beaters, serial killers and other monsters to seemingly prove Lehane's hard-boiled cred, plus a little soul-searching, and the almost-obligatory-by-now psycho sidekick make these seem like almost a blueprint for nineties hardboiled fiction, albeit on a larger scale than most -- prompting me at one point to unintentionally refer to the fourth book in the series as Long, Baby, Long.
But what do I know? The series has proven extremely popular, with Lehane's reputation growing in stature with each new book. The successful film adaptation of his standalone Mystic River certainly didn't hurt, either. And then actor Ben Affleck, another Boston boy, chose Gone, Baby, Gone as his directorial debut.
It was, by almost any measure, an audacious choice, and resulted in one of the great P.I. films of all tim. In stripping the story down to its bare bones, Affleck succeeded in making me see anew what I had missed on the printed page: the moral burden Kenzie drags with him throughout the series.
Which made me more receptive to Moonlight Mile (2010), Lehane's return, after an eleven year absence (Patrick started knocking on the door again, Lehane explains)), to the Kenzie-Gennaro series, and perhaps significantly, a sequel of sorts to Gone, Baby, Gone. With a new-found appreciation of the characters, I completely bought the premise.
In fact, Moonlight Mile may be one of the most important books in -- and about -- the private eye genre that I've read in years: audacious, uncompromising, mature, provocative and, oh yeah, still delivering some truly kick ass action.
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