Since We Fell - Dennis Lehane ****
How much do you trust your partner? How well do you really know them? The opening prologue of Dennis Lehane's new novel, Since We Fell, suggests that something has gone badly wrong in Rachel Childs' marriage, since she's just put a bullet into her husband. As we get into the story however and discover more about Rachel's troubled family background and the breakdown she suffers later, you have to wonder how much we can trust Rachel's state of mind. There's going to be two sides to this story, and for a while at least we are not going to be sure quite who to believe.
It might once have been a relatively clear-cut matter who was the injured party and who was the lying cheating bastard in any marriage situation, the only suspense being how long it would take the victim to realise their mistake and whether they would get out of it alive, but Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl was a game changer. Mixing the unreliable narrator with a more complex view of psychological exploration of the damage caused by family relationships, the pressures placed on a marriage by social conditioning, with the unforgiving gaze of the social/media pressure heaped onto it all, Flynn's Gone Girl brought the Hitchcockian relationship paranoia suspense thriller of Suspicion, Rebecca, Notorious and Vertigo bang up to date for our times.
Flynn's novel clearly struck a nerve and the imagination of the reading public, and judging by the bestseller lists, the appetite for this kind of material clearly hasn't diminished. But, let's just roll back there a moment. We're talking about Dennis Lehane here, the author of hard, gritty Boston crime dramas involving cops and private detectives. Do we really need another Gone Girl knock-off or is there something distinctive that Lehane can bring to the genre? You bet there is.
For a start, let's not forget that Lehane has already a stake in this territory with Shutter Island. It's also more or less his forte to create fictions that draw you into a compelling and credible world where the ground rules are constantly shifting. There's a psychological depth of understanding of his characters, their sense of place in a culture and a community, and the ambiguous relationship that lies between duty towards family and community and the law. Lehane brings all those characteristics to Since We Fell, just in a form that is a little different from what we usually expect.
The writing is just great. It's not just that the novel opens up with a beautifully written little vignette describing how Rachel Quinn shoots her husband. For some it would be a standard hook to get you through the scene setting passages, but with Lehane it's not strictly necessary. We're in the Massachusetts area of course, and Lehane's descriptions of Rachel's family life, her problems with her mother, the secrets surrounding a father whose name her mother refuses to divulge, and the trouble Rachel goes to in order to discover his identity are all gripping character studies in their own right, but Lehane delves deeper into the longer term impact of this upbringing on Rachel, her work as a journalist/reporter and her subsequent issues with panic attacks, psychiatrists and... men.
Rachel has clearly always had a difficult relationship with men. right from her long search to discover her father, right through her subsequent relationships with men and a first marriage that ends in divorce. Then Brian Delacroix reappears in her life, after years of distant acquaintance, and Rachel slowly seems to be regaining her sense of self, her sense of confidence, her sense of trust in those around her. Brian seems perfect. Then suspicions arise about his behaviour, his activities, and she begins to question how much she really knows about her husband. This, you can safely presume, leads to Rachel shooting and killing Brian. Of course, it's never safe to make presumptions in such situations.
Nor is it safe to presume that Dennis Lehane is belatedly jumping on the Gone Girl bandwagon. By the time the twists unfold and it's time to settle up the accounts on the elaborate plot that has been set into motion, Lehane convincingly returns to more familiar territory. He does it almost a little too well in fact. Most other books of this kind are happy to rely on an improbable alignment of chance situations that allow everything to fall into place, whereas Lehane is the more the kind to let everything fall apart and have his characters hastily improvise a rather more messy solution. The latter part of the book however is perhaps not as exciting once the elaborate mystery has been explained, but there is still the maelstrom of lives to pick up and characters pick apart in Since We Fell, and as usual Lehane doesn't disappoint.
Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane is published by Little, Brown on 16th May 2017
Since We Fell - Dennis Lehane ****