Dennis Lehane – Between Dorchester Ave and Sunset Boulevard

Dennis Lehane so rules the neighborhood of Noir (“Nwaaah,” as we say in Boston) that he gets street credit for work he didn’t write, like “The Departed” and “The Town.” But does the author of “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and the new Moonlight Mile get credit enough for a body of artistic work now far beyond private-eye or “genre” of any kind — way beyond his gift for Boston-accented dialog?

Our conversation is about the murkier depths of his Gothic novel and movie “Shutter Island,” with Leonardo diCaprio as a U.S. Marshall apparently trapped in a Boston Harbor lock-up for the criminally insane in the 1950s. I think it’s Lehane’s version of the War on Terror. He says it’s more nearly his answer to the Patriot Act, his reliving of the Cold War and the repressions it licensed in America. “All past is prologue,” he remarks. “Noir is without a doubt the ultimate genre of ‘you cannot outrun the past’… That’s ‘Mystic River’: you cannot outrun your nature. You cannot escape the past.” “Shutter Island” in that sense turns out to be Dennis Lehane’s recapitulation of McCarthyism (an American Stalinism): those good old days when the CIA experimented with LSD and other psychotropic drugs on Federal prisoners and other unsuspecting guinea pigs. It was a time, he’s saying, that foreshadowed the suspension of habeas corpus and the tortures of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in the George Bush years.

Dennis Lehane with Chris Lydon at Mother Anna’s restaurant in Boston’s North End.

We are testing a favorite Open Source premise that the most observant anthropologists and historians of our own time may be novelists. In his hometown he is riveted on “how this new Gilded Age is going to fall out. People are being priced out of Charlestown… out of Southie… It’s kind of horrifying… There seem to be only a few people who are worried that we’re selling out the entire country — that everything’s gone; that the America we knew growing up is just vanishing… Isn’t anybody paying attention? There’s no unions left; they destroyed them. They went after the unions and then outsourced everything. So now there’s no jobs left, and they’ve got the people that have lost their jobs, lost their houses, lost everything, believing that the reason they’ve lost it is everything but the real reasons. And everybody just seems to say: fine, as long as I can get this for three bucks a can at Walmart, I’m okay. I think we’re just watching America fiddle as it burns.”

Dennis Lehane is a writer who keeps expanding into new themes and new media, from his original cop stories to historical fiction, The Given Day (“Shades of Doctorow and Dreiser…,” Janet Maslin wrote in the Times), then long-form television in “The Wire,” and back to social realism and the adventures of PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro in Moonlight Mile. He’s been well served along the way by three tough self-inflicted rules. First, take no job that could divert him from his writing ambition; so he’s been a security guard and he’s parked cars, but was never tempted by law school or teaching. Second, sell the work to artists, never to corporations; so he finally yielded the movie rights to “Mystic River” to Clint Eastwood; and “Shutter Island” to Martin Scorsese. And third: undertake only those new projects that “on some level scare the hell out of me. It’s got to be something I’m afraid I can’t do.”

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  • orangescissor

    This conversation makes me think that the real Americans are working class immigrant (Irish, Jamaican whatever) mongrels from the inner cities who are sitting back watching a few faux blue blood kmart funded global elites trying to stuff down their white trash Yankee lifestyles down our throats. The question is when people decide-in a completely different way than Glenn Beck or Howard Beale meant – that they’re not going to take it anymore and look into how since the 1970s socio-economic inequities and imperial adventures have risen from the sanctioned death of the American civil rights movement.

  • The proto-blogger Dave Winer of the ever edgy Scripting News writes generously: “Great interview. I think you do the best interviews in radio these days, Chris. You know when to let people talk and what questions I want asked, as a listener — and you help the person tell his or her story, rather than going for a cheap thrill.”

    Now that’s a real thrill to hear from you, Dave. Thank you! I want you to love my gab with James Kaplan about Frank Sinatra.

  • nother

    Dennis is speaking at Perkins School for the Blind soon so I forwarded this interview to my friend who is the English teacher in the high school there. He played this interview for his students as an introduction and it was well received. Thanks.

  • Pat Crowley


    Good stuff. Working as a Teamster organizer on the loading docks in Boston in the mid 90’s Dennis is talking my language in a way few people outside of certain zip codes get. The casual but deliberate way he infused class politics into your interview is spot on.

  • Robert W Peabody III

    I like Lehanes’ approach to the BoHo dance – selling his work to artists. But there is no escaping the corporate distribution system. Hardcore cinephiles shun the films as too mainstream.

    Lehane: “Not a rebel against commerce….”

    This country is a beautiful thing by way of the conflicting forces that hold it together.

  • ks

    Lehane doesn’t understand that if you don’t protect the “worst of the worst” from abuse (throw them in the hole!), you won’t protect anyone. I love these noir interviews, but not so much Lehane, who’s well-enough educated to think he’s wise, and he’s not.

  • Kate McShane

    Fabulous interview!!!!! I have to listen to it a few more times before I would feel confident to say very much. He loves all the themes I love. I’ve read only a few of his books, 7one of which was MYSTIC RIVER. In 2006, I worked in a used book store and a woman came in and brought MYSTIC RIVER to the counter. I told her I’d read it and thought it was beautifully written, but I added, “There wasn’t one redeeming character and when I was finished, I felt so depressed!” She said, “He’s my nephew. He didn’t grow up that way. His parents were nice people. I don’t know where he gets this stuff!”