When Dennis Lehane was working on his latest novel, The Given Day, did he think about whether he was creating that elusive thing, the great American novel?
"I had that pressure on me at one point," Lehane says. "I had to say to myself, 'You need to stop writing for critics and write the story you want to read.' "
Questions about the great American novel aren't out of line. The Given Day is a big, ambitious, beautifully written novel about a dramatic moment in American history, filled with complex characters seeking to define themselves. In September it debuted to glowing reviews — the New York Times called it "a majestic, fiery epic" — and vaulted onto bestseller lists.
Lehane has been on those lists many times as the author of Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone, Baby, Gone and other novels. He's one of a handful of crime fiction writers whose work erases genre lines, thanks to both his craft and his expansive themes.
Both are on display in The Given Day, but it's a departure for Lehane in its scope and its setting in the past — it takes place before and during the Boston Police strike of 1919. "I had heard about it all my life" in his native Boston, Lehane says. "But it was just 'The Boston police walked off the job.' "
Several years ago, between writing Mystic River and Shutter Island, "I paused one day and thought about what that sentence means: 'The Boston police walked off the job.' And I thought, what the hell happened next?"
The more he found out about the strike, which began on Sept. 9, 1919, the more his interest grew. "I heard that the rioting began within 15 minutes and went on for three days" as mobs vandalized and looted businesses and beat, raped and stoned bystanders; the violence killed nine people.
"Then I heard about the cavalry charge" into Scollay Square by military troops called in to restore order, Lehane says, "and I knew. I thought, I've got to write this book."
He spent a year researching it, reading "a lot of books. I went to the Boston Public Library and did a lot of microfiche." Then he spent four years writing it; all told, it took twice as long as any of his other books.
When he began, he didn't conceive of the book as a commentary on contemporary America. "But it became brutally apparent that the mirrors were there," Lehane says. "I found that so many of the reasons for the Boston Police strike are things that are floating around in the zeitgeist now."
When the strike took place, just after the end of World War I, the nation was shaken by economic instability, racial conflict, controversy over labor unions and immigration, and political corruption — all themes on which Lehane built his book.
But, as he says, "I'm not a polemicist, I'm a novelist," so those themes became embodied in a fast-paced plot and a diverse cast of characters. The two central characters are Danny Coughlin, a young Boston police officer and first-generation Irish-American, and Luther Laurence, a young black man on the run from his past.
Lehane says he didn't plan the dual protagonists. "Luther walked into the book and said, 'I'm staying.' I know from past experience it's absolutely futile to argue with a character who wants to be in a book."
Danny Coughlin, he says, was difficult to write "because he's so classically heroic, and I'd never really done that before. I had to figure out how to dirty him up a little."
Danny's gradual move toward sympathy with the police effort to unionize makes him "a stand-in for a lot of readers, I hope," Lehane says. "People seem to forget that unions have been a good thing. Some terrible things have happened, like Mafia infiltration. But, you know, I'd like to say thanks for the 40-hour workweek, thanks for the weekend, thanks for the health insurance, thanks for my kid not having to work in a sweatshop."
Lehane says his next book won't reprise his five-book series about Boston private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. "They've stopped talking to me. I've been dropping fishing lines for nine years, and no bites."
Nor does he expect to stray far from writing about Boston, even though he now lives most of the year in the Tampa Bay area. An Eckerd College alumnus, he is co-director of its annual Writers in Paradise conference, and this year he married Angela Bernardo, an optometrist who practices in the bay area.
"Boston for me is this deep well, and there's still plenty of water in it," Lehane says.
One of the Kenzie-Gennaro books, Gone, Baby, Gone, became a hit movie directed by Ben Affleck in 2007, and Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood, was an Oscar winner in 2003.
Lehane's last novel before The Given Day, Shutter Island, has recently been filmed and is set to be released next year. Martin Scorsese directed, and the cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Kingsley. "Yeah, those little low-budget indie movies, they're good for the soul," Lehane says with a laugh.
Having had pretty good luck with translations of his books to film, does he think in cinematic terms when he writes?
"Never. I'll stare you right in the eye and say it."
When he writes, Lehane says, "I'm transporting myself into a conversational mode with a reader who's not there. I'm talking to a ghost. There's no room in that relationship for cameras and directors and actors."
He already has "just the slightest kernel of an idea" for his next book: "I want to know what happens to these families" in The Given Day.
Staying with the historical novel appeals to him more than writing about the present day. "I'm not comfortable with the present day. I might just write 700 pages that say, 'Arrest Cheney. Arrest Cheney.'
"Stepping back in time gives me a better handle on things."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.