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Shutter Island

Dennis Lehane

William Morrow/Harper Collins

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-688-16317-3

Publication Date April 15, 2003

325 Pages; $25.95

Date Reviewed: 05-26-03

Reviewed by Terry D'Auray © 2003



Mystery, Horror, General Fiction


Dennis Lehane's 'Shutter Island' is a multi-layered shocker of a story written with skill and control that few other writers can master. Just so you understand, I became a fan of Lehane back in 1994 with his debut novel 'A Drink Before the War', the first in his terrific series featuring Kenzie and Gennaro, one of the best male-female pairings in mystery fiction. I was a little wary, and admittedly, a little peeved, when he abandoned that series to write a stand-alone, 'Mystic River' in 2002. Until I read it -- and immediately voted it the best mystery novel of 2002. His newest, 'Shutter Island' comes with high expectations, and it doesn't disappoint.

Shutter Island is the home of Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a place with a dark history and foreboding presence. In 1954, two U.S. Marshals are summoned to the island to investigate the escape of an inmate-patient from her locked room, apparently under the watchful eyes of guards, orderlies, doctors and staff. What ensues is the unveiling of grizzly and horrific events (squeamish readers, take note), layer upon layer of character, and suspense that's rooted in the history of the island, in the power of nature (both Mother and human) and in the minds of the characters who populate this story. All is definitely not what it appears.

Shutter Island's primary character, Teddy Edwards, is a damaged, dark and lonely man. He is introduced with telling detail, and, through dreams and flashbacks, revealed, enriched and explained with story after story from his past. He is indeed a man who's past actions and failures, vividly recounted, lead to his current tormented state. You come to learn, gradually, why Teddy maneuvers his way to Shutter Island and to understand that this visit is his essential confrontation with demons from his past. Or so you think.

This is a novel of plot twists, set apart from the norm by Lehane's pacing, masterful and controlled. Each event builds on those preceding it to slowly and surely ratchet the level of suspense. Each new plot revelation sends you back to replay what you thought you knew in light of what you've just learned. What initially seems paranoid may be less so when you discover that the hospital is conducting experiments with funding from HUAC. The doctor in charge of the hospital, a character you most certainly expect to have evil and nefarious secrets, appears rational and sane. Events that occur in a dream seem ever so real, while events that occur in reality appear questionably dreamlike.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, these plot twists could easily get out of hand and become just silly sleight-of-hand mind-games. Not so with Lehane. He's completely in charge of his story, and you trust him to reveal his secrets, one by one, as the time is right. His writing brings to mind the great Hitchcock films, where duotoned shadowy settings, unusual camera angles, understated music and, above all, deft, slow pacing, build levels of tension far more terrifying than any rock 'em, sock 'em action film.

Above all, this is just a haunting read. Lehane tells a story of politics, war, morality, one peopled with men shaped and haunted by their past choices. His writing is vivid and descriptive and his dialogue is terrific, providing welcome moments of clever repartee that lighten this otherwise somber story. The ending is twisted and surprising, but fairly so, rooted in seeds planted throughout the narrative. I know it's dangerous to pick your "best of" book this early in the year, but I'll wager that 'Shutter Island' appears on a lot of lists, certainly mine. And while I'm placing wagers, after you've finished reading and pulled yourself back to your normal world, I'll bet you'll go back and reread the first chapter. Just to be sure.