D E N N I S L E H A N E
Interviewed by John Connolly
The history of Irish-American crime in New England is a chequered one, made up of roughly equal parts success, stupidity and violent death. In the early 1930s, the Gustin Gang briefly fancied itself as a serious rival to the New England Mafia, until the Italians disabused the Gustins of that notion by killing them all.
Then, in January 1950, a group of Irish gangsters led by Joe McGinnis pulled off what was then the biggest robbery in the history of the United States, when $2.77 million in cash and securities was stolen from the Brinks office in Boston.
Unfortunately, while waiting for the money to be counted, two of the gang stole a lawnmower in Towanda and dumped it in the trunk of the car with the guns used in the robbery, thus setting in train a series of events which culminated in life imprisonment for McGinnis. That, in a nutshell, explains why the Irish never really threatened the Italians: $2.7 million in their pockets and they still couldn't resist a unattended lawnmower.
Now there are only two Irish-Americans from Boston who can reasonably claim to have achieved a certain measure of wealth and fame through crime. The first is James J. "Whitey" Bulger (that's "Mr Bulger" to you), a former associate of the Patriarca crime family who is currently the only possessor of an Irish passport on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. Whitey - sorry, "Mr" Bulger - once almost proved the non-existence of God by claiming to have won $14 million on the Mass Millions lottery, until the FBI seized his annual cheque on the grounds that he was believed to have bribed one of the real winners as part of a money-laundering scam.
The second of these Irish-Americans to have profited from crime-related gains is Dennis Lehane, who has probably killed more people in the course of his private eye novels than Bulger could ever aspire to bump off in real life. Lehane, a 34 year old with a passing resemblance to the actor Aidan Quinn, is one of the two best American crime novelists under the age of 40. (His only real rival is the New Yorker, Harlan Coben.) Beginning with A Drink Before the War, published when he was 29, he has followed the changing fortunes of a pair of Boston private detectives, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, through five novels. Their characters and the relationship between them, both professional and personal, power the books, allied with Lehane's brilliant dialogue, his sometimes surreal plotting interspersed with sudden flashes of violence, and his carefully-drawn secondary characters, including the detectives' sidekick, the genially psychopathic Bubba Rugowski.
Each book is strikingly different: Darkness, Take My Hand is Lehane's serial killer novel, Sacred his slightly unsatisfactory caper novel, while Gone, Baby, Gone tackles child abduction and was partly inspired by his own experience of working with abused children in Florida to supplement his student income. The latter book is particularly fine, with a resolution as haunting and uncompromising as any in recent crime fiction. "It has an unhappy, happy ending ," he says. "It took two years to write and that's a hard thing to live with. A child was abducted about a mile away from my house while I was writing it and I knew he was dead. I mean, that's all I'd been living with. His name was Jeffrey Curley and he was found dead three days later. I was so angry, and I thought it would be an affront for the book to have a happy ending."
Lehane is Irish Catholic, the youngest of five children, and the product of an education supervised by nuns and Jesuits. Taken as a whole, the novels seem to prove beyond doubt that, beneath the facade of a great many good Catholic boys, something significantly darker lurks. His mother was from Connemara, his father from Clonakilty. They emigrated independently of each other in the late 1940s, met in Boston and married in 1951.
"But if they come back, I think I'll fly them into Shannon," remarks Lehane. He hasn't been in Dublin since the mid-1990s, and wears the slightly shellshocked look of a man who has returned home from work only to find that his house has been pulled down and replaced by an office block. Like many Dubliners of a similar age, he finds himself in the unlikely position of being nostalgic for a bygone era while still in his early thirties. That same nostalgia can be found in his novels: ostensibly set in the Boston suburb of Dorchester in the present day, the Dorchester depicted has ceased to exist since the mid-eighties.
"In the eighties it still had a very pointed identity as an Irish-Polish enclave," he explains. "It was somewhat cloistered, but that urban ethnic enclave is dying all over the country, and for good reasons. The books, in a weird way, are nostalgic for a place that doesn't exist anymore. It's like the old Dublin versus the new Dublin."
The comparison is an apt one. Dorchester, like much of Dublin, is divided into parishes, with neigbourhood boundaries delineated by churches. The white, mainly Catholic sections of Dorchester had to learn to co-exist with the residents of the black areas, and an uneasy truce existed between the two communities. It's worth remembering that, for all its liberal Harvard credentials, it was in Boston that some of the bitterest school desegregation clashes took place and that some residents of the Irish-American community did not acquit themselves well in the struggle.
"The history of Boston in the sixties, seventies and early eighties was as a completely ethnically divided city," recalls Lehane. "It was one of the last cities where you could say, 'that's a black section, that's an Italian section, and never the twain shall meet'. Thank God that's changed, and economics is one of the reasons behind that change. The whole world in general is becoming more like one big melting pot. Dublin is far less uniquely "Dublin" than it was even four years ago, and true Dubliners probably feel a mixture of emotions about that."
Lehane left Boston in the eighties and travelled to Florida to study creative writing at the tiny college of Eckerd in St Petersburg. It was while completing his Masters program at Florida International in Miami that A Drink Before the War was completed and sold. He returned to Boston and, with the advance from the novel, set out to document on film the community in which he had grown up. The result was Neighborhoods, a comedy-drama that he wrote, produced and directed for a total of $35,000, which was all the money Lehane had. Filming ended in 1996 and, as the Neighborhoods crew prepared to leave, another film crew arrived to begin work on a similar venture set in the Irish-American area of South Boston. That movie was called Good Will Hunting. The release of Neighborhoods was delayed by editing problems, and the rest is history. "It broke a lot of hearts," admits Lehane.
The experience didn't sour him, though. He is currently writing a screenplay based on his latest novel, Prayers for Rain, the tale of a man who, rather than murdering his victims, destroys their lives to such a degree that they wish they were dead and choose to kill themselves. Prayers for Rain received a welcome burst of publicity when Bill Clinton emerged from Air Force One with it clutched in his hand, despite the fact that the book is entirely free of oral sex.
Since the publication of Prayers for Rain, Lehane has been dividing his time between completing Mystic River, his first novel without Kenzie and Gennaro, and adjusting to married life with his wife of fourteen months, Sheila. In an act of sleight of hand comparable to Whitey Bulger's lottery scam, the couple invited all of their friends and family to what they believed was a surprise party for Lehane, only for the guests to find themselves attending the least-expected wedding of the year. Even the hotel had been booked under false names in an effort to avoid the perils of the traditional wedding.
"Well," shrugs Lehane. "It was that or elope..."
You just can't trust them.