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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Prosaic paranoia crowns Lehane’s ‘Island’

    Dennis Lehane is no stranger to film. Not only has he been a guest writer for three episodes of HBO’s “”The Wire”” and even worn that thick-brimmed director’s cap on the set of his own independent film “”Neighborhoods”” (1990), but his print oeuvre even boasts an apparent cinematic quality. Now joining the Oscar-winning adaptation of “”Mystic River”” (2003) and “”Gone Baby Gone”” (2007) is the genre-bending “”Shutter Island”” — a narrative that is as much film noir and psychodrama as it is gothic literature.

    The protagonist is U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, a gruff, chain-smoking gumshoe with the persuasive power of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. We don’t get to see Teddy working the mean streets, though; his introduction comes in a cramped lavatory, puking himself into delirium on a ferry bound for a remote island off Boston. The island is Shutter Island, an ominous slab of rock housing a maximum-security clinic for the criminally insane.

    As Daniels and his new partner, the wisecracking Chuck Aule, navigate the labyrinthine corridors of Ashecliffe Hospital and the twisted crevasses of the island in search of an escaped murderess, they encounter more questions than answers. In the fashion of a hardboiled procedural, this is to be expected. Where Lehane’s story truly deviates from other detective stories is in his incorporation of a much greater, more psychological mystery: How did Daniels get that stick shoved so far up his ass?

    While the mystery of the escaped patient grows ever more suspicious, the mystery of Teddy’s past is revealed little by little, eventually becoming the novel’s primary focus. Starting with the initial bout of seasickness, the text slowly explores the compounding torments of Teddy’s life: the death of his father at sea, the alleged death of his wife in a manmade fire, and eventually Teddy’s own spiritual death in the frigid courtyard of a WWII internment camp. This narrative shift also fosters a stylistic shift, when the pulpy, B-movie diatribes between Teddy and Chuck begin disintegrating into shadows of gothic isolation and claustrophobia. But Lehane’s network of thematic references doesn’t stop there.

    Set at the height of 1950’s McCarthyism and nuclear buildup, the novel overflows with Cold War paranoia. Whenever new characters are introduced, they are accompanied by twin specters of suspicion and menace. Deputy Warden McPherson’s voice “”hit(s) the air like a steel cable””; the amiable Dr. Cawley’s smile is “”explosive”” while disfiguring shadows “”bled across the rest of his face””; the escaped Rachel Solando beams with beauty but has eyes “”too wide, as if something hot were prodding them from inside her head.”” A regiment of mental patients as diverse as those from Ken Kesey’s “”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”” brims with deranged charm, but they act as warily toward Teddy as he does toward them. The island itself rounds out the cast, characterized with as much dirty history and natural malevolence as any of its eclectic residents.

    The differences between “”Shutter Island”” the book and “”Shutter Island”” the movie are purely in the details. Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis captures the pulpy language of Lehane’s protagonists expertly, and director Martin Scorsese brings the gothic hostility of the island and Ashecliffe Hospital to a stunning reality. What is reduced, obviously, is the sheer depth and history within each of Lehane’s characters — their inner thoughts and fears, their subtle edginess around Teddy. Other details in the mystery, such as the cryptic alphanumeric code discovered in the escaped Solando’s cell, are significantly condensed for the sake of screen time. The prolonged paranoia is well worth the read.

    In a recent press conference, Lehane expressed cynicism at the positive critical response to “”Mystic River.”” “”There’s something bourgeois about the book if the critics got it,”” he said. His goal for “”Shutter Island””: “”I’m going to confound them. Only the French are going to get this.””

    The influence is certainly there, but you don’t need to be French to enjoy this novel that is as much B-movie as it is Emily Brontë. If this highly-readable, highly-enjoyable mesh of horror and hardboiled sounds up your alley, do yourself the favor of reading it before you see the film; prior knowledge of the jarring conclusion might sour the embedded anxiety.

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