Author: Denis Lehane

2003, HarperCollins

Best ebook deal: Diesel eBooks

Filed under Mystery

I like to watch a movie and tell the person sitting next to me, “the book was sooo much better.” I’m one of those people. So when I saw a trailer for Shutter Island, I thought “I wonder if that is a book.” Turns out, it is. Denise Lehane (of book/movie combos Mystic River and Gone Baby, Gone) released Shutter Island in 2003. Shutter Island is a stretch for Lehane. Somewhat.

The book is not set in the present day Boston (rest easy, it takes place on an island just a stone-throw from Boston). Set in the fifties, it follows US Marshall Teddy Daniels as he travels to the secluded psychiatric hospital to investigate the disappearance of an inmate. Overall, this is a great read. Even though Teddy is a full and entertaining character, the island itself really steals the show. As far as settings go, it doesn’t get much better than an old-school insane asylum turned inside out by a hurricane, and the plot boils along.

Until the ending. The novel is well-researched, and Lehane even manages a few sly winks at present-day psychiatry. In a way, the novel can almost be read as a parable of psychology vs psychiatry, therapy vs medication. Lehane had me with this book, right up to the end. In an otherwise great book, this is where Lehane lost me. The ending was not dissappointing enough to ruin the book for me, by any means, but it felt like Lehane took an easy, and somewhat familiar, way out (and I will spoil it below).

I don’t want to go into too much depth, but suffice it to say that the island is swarming with mental patients and no one is exactly who he seems. As Teddy persues the mystery of a missing woman and struggles with the hospital’s chief physician’s obvious deception, the motivations of his partner, the staff, the patients, and everyone else on the island comes into question (think the ending of The Game coupled with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and you are on the right track).

It seems like Lehane reached a point in the narrative where he had to make a choice: either stay true to the plot or ditch it in favor of Teddy’s backstory. So he makes Teddy’s “investigation” a part of his therapy as a patient of the island. This makes his story more believable, maybe more “literary”, and less satisfying for the reader because the backstory is not as interisting as the actual narrative. I think my frustration with the ending of this novel comes because Lehane did such a good job drawing me into Teddy’s investigation, only to subvert it. So in giving us a familiar Fight Club kind of ending, Lehane undermined what works best in his novel: the engaging plot and menacing atmosphere.

That being said, once Lehane made his decision to eschew the premise, he did a good job of filling out the back story and working towards an ending that works for it. But it seemed like the two threads of the story Lehane was trying to weave together, the engaging plot and the full backstory, were at odds without ever being reconciled. It will be interesting to see if Scorsese stays true to the ending Lehane chose, or if he will be able to bring the backstory and plot together in a way that Lehane almost pulled off.

Other reads: Fight Club (Palahniuk), Mystic River (Lehane), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kesey)