BY NICO VREELAND

Author: Dennis Lehane

2010, William Morrow

Filed under: Mystery

Dennis Lehane definitely ranks in the upper tier of bestselling mystery writers. To be fair, the requirements for that honor include only a flair for plot schematics and the ability to write at a 10th-grade level. But Lehane has both of those: thus, upper tier. Still, if you’re new to Lehane, start with a different novel—this one feels recycled and phoned in.

Moonlight Mile is the sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone, and it involves all the same people. Even the same girl, Amanda McCready, is missing again—but now she’s 12 years older and had been living, or surviving at least, with her biological mother and her mother’s meth-dealer boyfriend. Private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro once again investigate Amanda’s disappearance.

Lehane writes his ancillary characters pretty well. Amanda, brilliant and almost sociopathic, and Yefim, the charismatic Russian gangster who shows up later on, are real bright spots, a pair of the best characters I’ve ever read in a bestseller. More disappointing is Patrick Kenzie, which is unfortunate since he’s the main character. Lehane tries way too hard to make Kenzie funny and current and hip, and only succeeds in making him obnoxious and boring.

Still, Moonlight Mile is a brisk, if unoriginal, page-turner. It features a good plot, a bad ending, a few great characters, and relatively few basic grammatical errors.

The similarities to Gone, Baby, Gone don’t stop at the premise (full disclosure: I’ve seen Gone Baby Gone, the movie version, but not read the book—still, the lack of innovation in Moonlight is obvious). Thematically, Moonlight treads the exact same ground: the central (and only) philosophical question at hand is whether a baby born to woefully unfit parents should be forced to stay with those parents. The answer, of course, is no: that’s what Child Protective Services is for. The better question is where to draw the line, and whether a citizen should take the law into his own hands.

In Gone, Baby, Gone, Kenzie decided to take baby Amanda back to her birth mother and Amanda had a horrific childhood that turned her into the calculating juggernaut we meet in Moonlight. I won’t say more about the specifics of Moonlight so as not to spoil anything, but suffice it to say: Lehane does what he can with the good-parent/bad-parent material, which is pretty rich stuff, but it always feels like a recycled moral dilemma.

Complicating the narrative is the fact that Kenzie and Gennaro have married and become parents in the time since their last search for Amanda. So Kenzie has to balance a severe need for money with a strong desire not to get his family killed, as mobsters occasionally threaten to do. That could make for some interesting earth to mine, but since Kenzie always sides with the money, the end result is that he whines a lot about what he has to do for it.

Lehane’s plotting is his strongest suit, and he ably lays down twists and turns. But he doesn’t plan an exit strategy, so the ending is quite deflating and disappointing. He repeatedly raises the stakes on Kenzie and Gennaro, but they never actually sacrifice or risk anything, and those raised stakes never come into play in any way. Admittedly, though, the arc is satisfying in a wish fulfillment kind of way.

The prose here is smooth, except for Lehane’s annoying attempts at humor and his habit of wedging modern references and technology into almost every scene. Here’s one of the better such passages, a description of the faceless private investigation firm Kenzie works for:

Duhamel-Standiford didn’t tweet. They didn’t have a blog or pop up on the right side of a Google screen when someone typed in “private investigation greater boston.” Not be found in the Yellow Pages, on the back of Security and You magazine, or begging for your business at two A.M. between commercials for Thighmaster 6000 and 888-GALPALS. Most of the city had never heard of them. Their advertising budget amounted to the same number every quarter: 0.

And they’d been in business for 170 years.

This passage falls into the category of “trying too hard, gets boring.” Here’s a passage that falls under “unnecessary cultural reference,” during the first sight of a Russian gangster lair:

On the back wall, in the center, was a sixty-inch TV screen. Two guys stood in front of it playing Wii Tennis, swinging their arms back and forth and jumping in place while their midget avatars ran back and forth across the screen.

Yeah, that’s what it looks like. There’s no insightful observation here, just the meaningless mention of something from the world, described as if we readers were from an alien planet.

Still, this is an enjoyable book, even though it’s cluttered with filler and 75% recycled, like a bad hot dog. Lehane’s strengths shine through what I’m guessing (or hoping) was his worst book in years. Yefim and Amanda are outstanding characters, sharply written and entirely three-dimensional. If Moonlight just had a better main character, less crap, and a better ending, I would recommend it without reservation. As it is, consider getting this one from a library, but if you’re buying or new to Lehane, go with a different novel first.

Similar books: Moonlight Mile is fairly standard noirish P.I. fare. I think it’s most similar to: Faithful Place, by Tana French; The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, by Tarquin Hall; and Nemesis, by Jo Nesbø. I liked Moonlight Mile best of all of these. For top-tier mystery, try Noir, by Robert Coover, or Misadventure, by Millard Kaufman.

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