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Onyx reviews: Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane's already-rising profile took a sudden leap forward when Clint Eastwood adapted his novel, Mystic River, as his most recent feature film, a movie that has garnered numerous high-profile accolades for the director and cast. Lehane's follow-up novel, Shutter Island, has also been optioned, this time by Wolfgang Peterson, who directed Eastwood in In the Line of Fire.

Lehane is also the author of a detective series set in Dorchester, one of Boston's less affluent communities. His series protagonists, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are childhood pals turned blue-collar detectives eyes operating out of a church where "all manner of unholiness crosses their threshold."

In Shutter Island, Lehane strays offshore to Massachusetts' Outer Harbor and eponymous island, where Ashcliffe Hospital, a federal institution for the criminally insane is located. It's 1954, and two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, arrive on the island to investigate the seemingly inexplicable disappearance of a patient from the maximum-security prison hospital.

Readers are advised to pay attention to even the most inconsequential of details as they read this book, for Shutter Island is one of those novels where later events will make you go back and re-evaluate everything you think you already know.

Ashcliffe's administration resents the intrusive investigation and seems purposefully unhelpful. Daniels and his new partner believe that something is being hidden from them. They suspect that the hospital is performing unauthorized experimental brain surgery in secluded Ward C.

Daniels is a man who carries a heavy load of personal baggage. He lost his wife two years earlier in a fire. He begins to suspect that he is being fed psychotropic drugs to keep him off the trail and that someone—perhaps the authoritarian director—is trying to drive him mad. Is his emotional trauma making him paranoid? Or is there a plot to keep him and Aule from ever leaving Shutter Island?

No one can offer a satisfactory explanation as to how a barefoot woman—imprisoned for murdering her children—could have escaped the island from a locked room. Daniels also encounters a series of coded clues that seem to have been left for him specifically.

Complicating matters is an approaching hurricane whose gale-force winds threaten to cut off communication and access to the mainland and unleash the inmates.

Mysteries and clever twists are all well and good in a suspense novel, but what makes Lehane's books stand out from among the pack is his depth of characterization. Robert Langdon is kept so busy solving puzzles in The Da Vinci Code that readers only learn superficial things about his past. For Lehane, characters are at least as important as the story. He has been quoted as saying that his stories are about people who strive for what they want, only to wind up with what they need instead.

So, what does Teddy Daniels need? More, certainly, than merely locating the missing prisoner on Shutter Island and restoring order to Ashcliffe Hospital. Something, perhaps, relating to an undocumented prisoner who was responsible for the fire that killed his wife. Even he doesn't have a clear idea of what he needs at the beginning of the book, and one of the novel's biggest questions is: Will he be prepared to accept what he needs when it is revealed to him?

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