Dennis Lehane is a past master of the irresistible opening paragraph, and he gives us another one in Since We Fell:
"On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-seventh year, Rachel shot her husband dead. He stumbled backward with an odd look of confirmation on his face, as if some part of him had always known she'd do it."
It's an opener worthy of Raymond Chandler or James Cain, and the rest of this novel — a sleek thriller that, despite its turbocharged pace, explores the nature of love and evil — is just as gripping.
Lehane's last book was World Gone By in 2015, a historical crime novel set in Tampa in the 1940s that completed a trilogy with The Given Day and Live by Night. For many years, Lehane, a Boston native and graduate of Eckerd College, split his time between Boston and St. Petersburg. (A couple of years ago, he and his family moved from Florida to Los Angeles.)
Since We Fell feels very different from the trilogy, and not just because of its contemporary setting. Its style is more pared down, its focus tighter. Reading it, one can see the influence of what Lehane has learned working in movies and television, on such projects as The Wire and Boardwalk Empire as well as movies based on his own books, like Shutter Island and The Drop. Since We Fell feels distinctly cinematic (and indeed is already in development by Dreamworks, with Lehane working on the script). Its dialogue is crisp and often darkly funny, its characters vividly drawn, its plot a tightening wire of well-crafted suspense.
This is Lehane's first novel to be told from the point of view of a woman, Rachel Childs. The first part of the book recounts her early life as the daughter of an academic, Elizabeth Childs: "Her mother, who never married, wrote a famous book on how to stay married." Elizabeth is a dominant influence, but Rachel barely remembers her father, who left them when she was a toddler, and grows up with "her mother's decision (whether conscious or unconscious, she'd never know) to make her father's identity the central battleground in a war that colored Rachel's entire youth."
As an adult, Rachel sets out to find him. During that quest, she tries to hire a young private investigator named Brian Delacroix, an earnest sort who discourages her: "You don't have enough information to find this guy. ... Let him go."
She doesn't. She begins a career as a journalist, and her research skills finally lead, over several years and through many dead ends, to a photograph of a man in a mirror.
Her skills also lead her to rapid success, first as a newspaper reporter, then to television, and to marriage to an equally ambitious TV producer named Sebastian. She's soon poised to promotion from a Boston TV station to a network job, and she's sent to prove her mettle by covering the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
Up until then, Rachel has been fearless and fierce, her mother's daughter. The staggering loss of life she witnesses, and the ice-cold cruelty of some of the survivors, shatter her. She suffers a breakdown on the air that ends her career and marriage and leaves her emotionally crippled, barely able to leave home.
On one of her rare forays into the world, on the day her divorce becomes final, she runs into Delacroix in a bar, and everything changes. How? From that point, Since We Fell takes off like a rocket, and I won't give any of it away. Trust me, you'll be glad I didn't.
Suffice it to say that anyone who has read Mystic River or Shutter Island (or seen the movies based on them) knows that questions of identity, memory and reality have long been Lehane's raw material — and that, along with being one of the best crime fiction writers in the business, he's also an adept, insightful chronicler of romance.
Like many of Lehane's other characters, Rachel will put herself back together after a catastrophe, but which pieces will be missing? And how can she tell whether someone else is solid or as broken as she has been, or more so?
"Monsters, her mother had told her and she had learned herself over the years, don't dress like monsters; they dress like humans," Lehane writes. "Even stranger, they rarely know they're the monsters."
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.