For over a decade, Dennis Lehane’s name has been synonymous with skillfully crafted crime novels. Both Mystic River and Shutter’s Island were made into blockbuster movies and Coronado contains some of the best short stories in American fiction. However, Lahane’s greatest crowd-pleaser is Gone, Baby, Gone (2007), a tension-soaked thriller that racked up an impressive number of Academy awards (Ben Afleck, Casey Afleck, Amy Ryan). Now comes the sequel, Moonlight Mile.
It is now 12 years later, and the husband and wife team of Patrick McKenzie and Angie Gennaro are married and have a precocious daughter, Gabby. However, the McKenzie’s are having serious doubts about Patrick’s future as a private investigator. In short, the work is hazardous, Boston is a high-risk location and Patrick is physically and mentally weary. In addition, the current state of the economy has both parents investigating alternative vocations. Ah, but then, a midnight phone call conjures up a past that Patrick has tried to forget.
The caller’s name is Beatrice McCready, a woman who had once hired Patrick to recover a kidnapped, 4-year-old girl named Amanda. As things turned out, Amanda had been kidnapped “for her own good” by a relative who hoped to remove her from the negligent care of a mother with a drug addiction and a criminal record. Before the entire chain of events runs its course, Patrick has memorable (and violent) encounters with pedophiles, drug lords, several psychopaths, a host of corrupt policemen and a few jaded social service workers.
In the end, Amanda is found in the home of two loving parents (who go to prison for their part in the kidnapping) and Patrick returned Amanda to the home and care of her drug-addicted mother. Patrick’s decision to do the legally correct thing by returning the child to her natural mother causes Angie to move out (she eventually returns) and leaves Patrick with a growing suspicion that the wrong people have been punished. Now, over a decade later, Amanda is missing again.
After a severe beating and several hair-raising encounters with a Russian drug lord named Yefin Molkevski (a kind of whimsical sadist), Patrick finally tracks Amanda to a small town in upstate New York. It quickly becomes evident that Amanda has not been kidnapped, but is on the run with Sophie, a pregnant girlfriend who has become a pawn in a Russian baby-smuggling racket. Instead of a frightened teenager, Patrick soon discovers that Amanda has become skilled in stealing identities and forging documents. She is also one year away from an impressive inheritance (compliments of a lawsuit against the Boston police department for their negligent handling of her original kidnapping). In order to survive, Amanda has also developed a cold, rational demeanor and an ability to deceive, defend herself and, if necessary, to kill.
As Moonlight Mile moves from one violent encounter to another, Lehane stokes the mounting tension by increasing the danger. When the Russian drug lord becomes aware of Patrick’s investigation, Yefin informs him that Angie and Gabbie will be murdered if Patrick does not do as he is told. To complicate matters further,Yefin’s boss, Kirill Borzakov and his demented wife, Violeta have decided to “adopt” Sophie’s baby. When the gunman who is sent to collect the child (newly born and named Claire) is killed in a confrontation with Amanda, Sophie and Sophie’s boyfriend, Zippo (his last name is Lighter), the two young women flee, taking the dead gunman’s backpack, which just happens to contain the Belarus Cross, a religious relic with a long, bloody history that had been acquired by Kirill. Yefin tells Patrick that they have a bargain. The Belarus Cross and the baby Claire for the lives of Angie, Gabby and Amanda. Yeah, it is complicated.
But, let’s not forget Bubba. In all of Lahane’s novels about Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, the two detectives have a loyal friend who is muscular, psychotic and devoid of principles. When the two detectives find themselves in difficulty (about to be terrorized and/or murdered), they call Bubba, who usually arrives and departs like a stroke of lightning — a kind of deus ex machina, leaving the field littered with the carcasses of crime lords, rapists and pedophiles. Suffice it to say that Bubba is summonsed (twice) in Moonlight Mile.
Behind all of the gunfire, bloodshed and perversity in Moonlight Mile, there is a theme that dominates both this novel and Gone, Baby, Gone. It is a tragic rumination on the consequences of child abuse and neglect. Lehane’s villains are the people who engender and promote this sad state of affairs. LaHane’s graphic portraits of apathetic social workers and negligent parents are as authentic and telling as his descriptions of his villains.
Although Patrick Kenzie’s constant struggle to be “cool” is a bit irritating (speak the current jargon, play the current music, and saturate his conversation with “pop” references), he is an appealing protagonist. For the past decade, Lahane’s skill with dialogue and atmosphere have made him one of the most readable crime fiction writers. Especially pleasing is Patrick’s (Lahane’s) unabashed love of city life (street noises, venders, taxis) and his knack for depicting children. Finally, Lehane’s ability to capture a frozen moment of terror is remarkable. Moonlight Mile has an unforgettable example in the death by Acela scene in which Patrick stands on a bloody train platform with two plastic grocery bags tied on his feet, peering at what might be a human nose and marveling that an Acela, running at top speed, “doesn’t run you over, but blows you up.”
There is no doubt about it, Moonlight Mile is on a predictable track: from bestseller to the movies, outpacing any competition by a moonlight mile.
Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane. HarperCollins, 2010. 336 pages.