If you were to hold a contest to find The Most Underrated Commercial Author Who’s Sneakily Actually A Pretty Great Literary One, certainly Dennis Lehane would be on the shortlist, a Boston native and graduate of Florida’s prestigious Eckerd College whose string of crossover popular/critical hits include such Hollywood blockbusters as Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island (and who in fact now lives in southern California himself, where he’s been a staff writer on such critically lauded shows as The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, and regularly plays himself on the metafictional crime-novelist action-comedy TV show Castle).
And this streak continues with his newest, Since We Fell released just a few months ago, which technically is an action-packed crime thriller (and make no mistake, that’s not “crime thriller*” with an MFA asterisk), but that is set up and reads at many points like a slow-burning literary character study instead, one that wouldn’t be out of place sitting next to books by Joyce Carol Oates or Doris Lessing. And I specifically mention those female-oriented novelists, of course, because this is famously Lehane’s first-ever book to feature a female protagonist, from an author who got famous writing about a series of blue-collar white male tough guys from poor neighborhoods on the Eastern Seaboard, but who Lehane has publicly talked about “no longer connecting with” now that he’s a rich and famous middle-aged celebrity out in Los Angeles.
Switching to this new kind of hero has turned out to be a smart move for him, because Lehane has been able here to take all the push-pull between toughness and tenderness that’s marked his earlier novels, and apply it again but to a situation that’s the opposite from previous audience expectations, here presenting a woman who’s as hard and unrelenting as any of his male protagonists but whose softer and more complex side works particularly well within the realm of literary fiction. Specifically, it’s the story of Rachel Childs, whose tale wanders and meanders for the entire first two-thirds of the page count before we even get to the thriller setup that so strongly defines the last third.
The daughter of an equally complicated woman, a once-famous but now faded ’70s self-help author who’s turned into a manipulative but genteel alcoholic in old age, the main issue propelling the first two-thirds of the book is the mystery over Rachel’s long-fled biological father, and the equal mystery of why Rachel’s mother refuses to divulge even the tiniest little clue about his identity, even taking the mystery to the grave which sets Rachel on an obsessive quest in her twenties for the answers. And indeed, it’s tempting to call this book a bait-and-switch when we finally get to the last third, and learn that the main crime-thriller storyline actually has not a single thing to do with anything that happened in the first two-thirds, at least when it comes to the literal plot elements not aligning together between the two sections in any way.
But that’s why I call this a sneakily literary character drama, because what the first two-thirds of this novel does is give us an ultra-deep, ultra-complicated look at Rachel, what makes her tick, and what things have happened in her life all the way up to this point that makes her tick in the way she does; and all of that, from the trust issues to the bad relationships, her time as an investigative reporter in developing nations undergoing revolutions, her panic attacks and eventual time as a shut-in, gives us a richly dense sense of why she behaves as she does when the traditional genre part of her story finally kicks in. Most genre authors would make their entire book about just that last third; and that’s what makes Lehane special (and in turn has made projects he’s been a part of like The Wire special), that he takes the time and effort to let us get to know what are usually in genre novels a series of cardboard-cutout plot-mechanic-shufflers, to understand their motivations and what in their pasts make them behave the way they do here in the present.@dennis_lehane's #SinceWeFell is a sneaky literary character tale, masquerading as a crime thriller Click To Tweet
As a result, it makes Since We Fell a fascinating novel, the rare crime thriller for those who usually don’t like crime thrillers, and an opportunity for usual genre fans to get a sense of why fans of richly layered literary fiction become so obsessed with their own form of “genre” writing (that is, if you count “MFA fiction” as a type of genre unto itself, which I do). I’ve been burning through a whole series of books here recently that have each scored in the high 9s, and this is another of them, one of the most thought-provoking and thrilling reads I’ve had in the last year, and that will undoubtedly be making CCLaP’s best-of lists in December. It comes strongly recommended today, whether or not you’re a usual fan of crime fiction.
Out of 10: 9.7