Castaway on Shutter Island

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. William Morrow, 325 pages, $25.95 hardcover

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. William Morrow, 325 pages, $25.95 hardcover

MiMi Yeh

by MiMi Yeh

Dennis Lehane’s new novel, Shutter Island, is an appropriate read for the rainy Memorial Day weekend. Set in post-World War II Massachusetts, the two main characters, U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and partner Chuck Aule, set out to search the grounds of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane for mad, lovely Rachel Solando. This book is part locked-room mystery, part psychological thriller, complete with twists and turns reminiscent of Jekyll-and-Hyde meets Patrick McGrath’s Asylum where black is white and the only enemy is the one looking back at you from the mirror.

Lehane, known for his Gennaro-Kenzie mysteries set in his own native neighborhood of local Dorchester, has taken an indefinite hiatus from the detective duo with Mystic River and now, his latest, Shutter Island. Mystic River, a tale involving sexual abuse, murder, and the mob for spanning the childhood and maturity of three friends, was made into a movie by the same name, garnered a “Carrosse d’Or” (“Golden Coach”) for director Clint Eastwood by the Society of French Film Directors, in recognition of this talent and originality. Now with his seventh novel, Lehane shows no chance of any dampening of the versatility he has shown in being able to delve into the deepest parts of both the criminal and detective psyche.

With the fear of Communism still fresh in the air and the echoes of McCarthyism rippling through a politically charged, secretive government, the stage is set for paranoia and mistrust to fester, especially for a man with a past like Teddy Daniels. A code cracker and decorated military man, Daniels is haunted by the fiery death of his wife and children, constantly flashing back to cherished moments and time spent together.

Recently partnered with Chuck Aule, a man demoted and abused for falling in forbidden love with a American-born Japanese girl, Aule seems in every way the good-natured comrade, supportive and genial, the “good cop” of the pair. Yet, when he disappears, Daniels must decide who and what he is working for.

The plot centers around finding Solando and, yet, like any good mystery author, Lehane has a way of making the reader’s brain itch with the nagging questions the all-too-smoothly running institution of Ashecliffe brings up. For instance, why does a supposed sewage treatment plant require razor wire topped fences and armed guards patrolling the perimeter? Why does Daniels specifically get sent to Ashecliffe where, coincidentally, the man responsible for making him a childless widower, Andrew Laeddis, is housed there as well?

Then there’s the arch villain, Dr. John Cawley, the elusive psychiatrist rumored to be running experiments in psychopharmacology. Ashecliffe, Cawley’s brainchild, is supposed to be a place for the most dangerous patients around to receive the latest in treatments thanks to the discovery of new drugs and the power of electro-convulsive therapy. The old, barbaric ways of performing lobotomies and bleeding patients will be gone, to make way for new, mind-altering medications like LSD that will give patients a new perception of reality. So why do his military connections keep coming up; his involvement in special, top-secret, operations?

Shutter Island’s twists and turns are a maze built to confound all, at times, including the audience. Lehane, though an undeniably brilliant novelist, relies less on plot and more on the occasionally hokey Gothic atmosphere and playing mind-games with the reader while layering on the cheese with the addition of some obvious devices like “mysterious disappearances” and wordplay. It’s both an enticing and frustrating read that may disappoint long-time fans. However, Lehane is to be commended for breaking out of his genre-developed habits and making something, while not as great as his other efforts, truly creative in the haunting, rain-strewn halls of Ashecliffe on the storm-soaked Shutter Island.