I saw the movie “Mystic River” quite a few years ago, and remember it being dark, painfully tragic and brilliantly acted. Now, having read quite a few of Lehane’s novels and enjoyed every one of them, I picked up Mystic River the book at my library, and got blown away all over again. Lehane takes a murder mystery and wraps it in a study of human psychology that is truly Shakespearean in scope.
It starts with an horrific childhood trauma: three 11-year-old boys are squabbling in the rough streets of Boston, when a cop car pulls up and orders the kids into the car to “teach them a lesson” about fighting in the streets. Only they are not cops, and while Jimmy and Sean recognize something isn’t quite right and refuse to get in the car, the fearful Davey does. He escapes from his abductors four days later, but none of the three escapes unscathed from the incident. The guilt-ridden Sean grows up into a cop with a broken marriage, Jimmy hones his street smarts into becoming a criminal legend, and the severely-damaged Dave carries around “the Boy Who Escaped From Wolves” in his head while trying to be a good family man.
They’ve gone their separate ways, but Sean, Jimmy and Dave cross paths tragically when Jimmy’s lovely 19-year-old daughter is beaten to death on the eve of her secret elopement. Sean must investigate a murder which brings him face-to-face with his childhood fears, Jimmy must decide whether to return to the coldblooded past he had shunned for his family’s sake, and Dave encounters his “Wolf.” But Lehane doesn’t stop there. He gives us Jimmy’s wife Annabeth, a stoic and strong-willed woman who is sister to a vicious clan of thugs and Jimmy’s “foundation,” and Dave’s wife Celeste, a cousin to Annabeth whose fear of the encroaching world and its attendant horrors undoes her.
As much a novel about the flaws that challenge us and make us human as it is about the city of Boston in which Lehane grew up and sets all his novels, Mystic River is a tour de force. As one reviewer put it so succinctly, “The lines between guilt and innocence, loyalty and treachery, justice and brutality are perpetually being smudged and redrawn,” forcing one to look inward and test oneself against the moral ambiguities in today’s world. Without giving anything away, I will say that the very end of the novel was deeply disturbing—as it was meant to be—and clinched Lehane’s brilliance for me.