Dennis Lehane’s books have been made into films by Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island), Clint Eastwood (Mystic River) and Ben Affleck (Gone, Baby, Gone), he spent time in the august writing room of The Wire, and the New York Times proclaimed his 2008 historical novel, The Given Day, “a majestic, fiery epic that moves him far beyond the confines of the crime genre.” But before all that, Lehane made his rep with five Kenzie-Gennaro crime books — of which Gone, Baby, Gone, is one — about two private eyes in Boston. Eleven years after his last book in the series, Prayers for Rain, he returns with a sixth installment, Moonlight Mile, out on Tuesday. In the novel, twelve years have transpired since the little girl Amanda McCready was kidnapped and then discovered in Gone, Baby, Gone — and now that girl has disappeared again. Vulture spoke to Lehane about the new novel, why he’s not a mystery writer, and how, with age, he’s “more aware of how much I can suck.”
You said in a previous interview that after five installments, everything goes to shit: The X-Files after season five, Hill Street Blues after season five. Yet here you are on the sixth Kenzie-Gennaro book. What happened?
If The X-Files had taken ten years off and then come back with a movie, it might have still been good. You know, there was ample time to let these characters regenerate. Part of the problem was that when I reached the end of the fifth book I had said, in my opinion — and in their opinion — everything there was to say at that point in their lives. To go on after that would have just been plugging them into plots. But when he [Patrick Kenzie] began talking to me again… Ten and a half years later he was a totally different human being.
Was this book easier or harder than the last Kenzie-Gennaro book, Prayers for Rain?
It was a pretty tough book to write in a lot of ways. Because at first I was like, “Oh! Oh, this is great. It’s like putting on an old pair of jeans. This is awesome.” And then it’s like, “I remember why I stopped wearing these jeans.” Part of the P.I. genre drying up for me was that I didn’t know where else to take it…. Another reason I stopped after five is that all P.I. novels are updates of the Western and within that there’s a core unreality in which the P.I. is this knight errant who gets in all these adventures. Once I accepted that unreality I decided that I had to make the books as real as I could within that context. But after five books, how many more trips down into the depths of Hell can two people endure? How many more scenes of horror can they witness?
When you’re writing now, do you feel like you’ve gotten better at certain things but you’ve also gotten worse at certain things?
I think that almost anything I used to do better. I think what I’ve gotten less self-conscious about is impressing the reader as they read. Just tell the frigging story and let everyone else worry about what lines they’re going to quote. I used to be almost language-obsessed about my prose — not my dialogue but my prose. I’ve gotten less self-conscious about that part of writing. Otherwise I just find it harder and harder, and it just keeps getting harder and harder. I’m so much more aware of how much I suck. I’m more aware of how much I can suck, how many opportunities I have to step in the wrong hole. I miss that plucky kid. I looked at my first book again and it’s so glib, it’s so ba-dum-bum-bum, that it makes me cringe, but it’s so buoyant. There’s a young man’s voice that’s absolutely reckless and that steadily declines in each book as I become more and more aware of what I’m doing. Now there’s more a sense of, “Boy, I can really fuck this up.”
You’re mostly thought of as a literary fiction writer who works in genre. Do you agree?
There’s a new shattering of the old straitjackets of genre and now suddenly is it literary or is it genre? At the end of the day I don’t really care which you call me. I’m super-comfortable with either. If you want to call me a crime writer I’m okay with it. The only thing I say I’m not — call me a crime fiction novelist, call me a noirist or an urban writer — but I’m not a mystery writer. Those are whodunnits and I’ve only written two of those and it’s very clear while reading them that I don’t give a shit who did it.
You’ve said before that you need some distance before deciding if you like a book or not. Have you come to a conclusion about Moonlight Mile?
I need time on Moonlight Mile. I should say, “Hey, I’m selling this book and it’s the best book ever.” In reality, I have no idea. I have absolutely zero clue. I had a moment when Ben Affleck first came to town and we went out and talked about the book [Gone, Baby, Gone] and I had not even half a clue about some of the stuff he was saying. It’d been so long, so I broke my rule and went back to it. And I remember standing in the foyer looking at that book thinking, “Hey, Lehane. How many fucking prologues do you need? How long before you get to the real stuff? This is just unreadable.” And I put it back on the shelf. I look back at Mystic River and think, “This is okay, this is alright.” I feel that way about The Given Day and parts of my first novel. But the vast majority of them, it’s like looking at pictures of yourself that you’re not terribly fond of.