Dennis Lehane is one of the best in the business of writing in the hard-boiled detective form, created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in novels like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.
It's a quintessential American genre, with its tough, wisecracking loner hero, its dark secrets and gaudy violence, its insistence on looking behind the facades of wealth and respectability to the terrible compromises and crimes that often maintain them.
Lehane started his career as a novelist with five compulsively readable books about Boston private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, business and sometimes romantic partners. All are classic examples of hard-boiled style; the last was Prayers for Rain in 1999.
He hasn't exactly been slacking off since then, writing such bestsellers as Mystic River, Shutter Island and The Given Day. Lehane, who lives in St. Petersburg and Boston, told me in a 2008 interview that Patrick and Angie had "just stopped talking to me."
A year later, though, they were talking again, and his new novel Moonlight Mile is the splendid result.
It returns to characters from in the fourth book in the series, Gone, Baby, Gone, which was made into a hit film in 2007. In that book, Patrick and Angie were hired to find a kidnapped 4-year-old, Amanda McCready. After considerable bloodshed, Patrick returned Amanda to her mother, Helene — which was not the happy ending it might sound like. His decision to send the child back to a terribly neglectful home shattered his relationship with Angie.
In Moonlight Mile, it's 12 years later. Patrick and Angie have not only reconciled, they're happily married and have a 4-year-old daughter, the aptly named Gabby, whom they adore. Angie is in graduate school and Patrick is struggling to make enough as a private investigator to support them. He's even trying to get on staff at a bespoke security firm, Duhamel-Standiford — a job the old Patrick (or at least the Patrick of the boom years of the '90s) would never have considered.
The economy is hitting everyone hard. Patrick's formidable brother in arms, Bubba Rogowski, has gone into the black-market medical business, smuggling "illegal 'legal' drugs" in from Canada to sell to Bostonians whose health care insurance won't cover them. (Bubba's markup is much smaller than Big Pharma's.)
As Patrick is mnotherulling over whether he can adjust his attitude enough to work for rich people, he gets a call from someone who's distinctly not rich: Amanda McCready's Aunt Beatrice. Amanda, now 16, has vanished again. "You owe, Patrick," Beatrice tells him.
That brings up his old rage and doubt, but he goes looking for Amanda anyway — and almost immediately gets a smashed face and a warning to stop, which of course has the opposite effect.
What he finds is that, according to everyone and against the odds, Amanda has grown into a self-possessed young scholar on her way to the Ivy League college of her choice. So why should she disappear?
Helene is as clueless and self-absorbed as ever, and the latest in her long string of boyfriends, Kenny, is in the identity theft business. They're involved with a bunch of Russian — make that Mordovian — mobsters who are also looking for Amanda, so they're not exactly forthcoming on her whereabouts.
Patrick does find out that Amanda's best friend (or loyal follower), Sophie, is missing, too. As another schoolgirl tells him, "I heard five people went into a room. . . . Two people in that room died. But four people walked back out."
Moonlight Mile boasts not only such enigmatic clues but many of the other hallmarks of great hard-boiled fiction. Lehane is a master of the genre's lean, propulsive style and its sharply observed descriptions, like this one of Sophie's stepmother: "She was attractive the way sports bar hostesses and pharmaceutical reps are — hair the color of rum and lots of it, teeth as bright as Bermuda. She had the look of a woman who kept her plastic surgeon on speed dial."
In the search for the truth about Amanda, Patrick will encounter a breathtakingly ruthless femme fatale, discover that nothing is exactly what it seems and crack wise through it all. The book even has its own Maltese Falcon, the jeweled Belarus Cross. As one Mordovian gangster says, "Every time someone die for it, it gets more beautiful, I think."
But Patrick and Angie, whose relationship created edgy sexual tension in the first five books, have changed. Hard-boiled detectives are by definition loners, people who can take the big risks because no one is at home waiting for them. Now Angie and Patrick are Gabby's mom and dad.
They're not the only ones trying to figure out how to be good parents while living in a world of compromise. Family matters are at the core of Moonlight Mile, especially the question of how people raise their children. Some do an appalling job, some hardly bother to try, some will change their lives for their kids — and some are willing to risk dying.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.