Palm Reader: Dennis Lehane belongs to us

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It might turn into a literary turf war.

There's no denying that Dennis Lehane has emerged as one of America's greatest novelists during the last decade and a half. His books have touched millions of readers and inspired a number of great Hollywood films, including Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone.

And, of course, he is as steeped in Boston as beans, beer and baseball.

But he also keeps a home in Tampa Bay.

So is he a Massachusetts writer? Or is he a Florida writer?

Florida can make a good claim. Lehane isn't one of those Northern writers who makes it big, then decides on a winter home in the Sunshine State because he's gotten sick of the winters and because, finally, he can afford it.

Lehane earned his degrees at Eckerd College and Florida International, so the state has been an important place in his development as a writer.

Now that he's one of the hottest writers in America, both states want to claim him. So before this thing escalates any more, let me do my Rodney King impersonation: Can't we all just get along?

Let's focus on the work. Lehane's new book, Moonlight Mile (William Morrow, $26.99) is another piece of overwhelming evidence that Lehane is about as good as it gets when it comes to crime fiction.

No less an authority that Michael Connelly — no question about his stature as a great Florida writer — considers Lehane the "heir apparent." As Connelly said about Lehane early on, "You read his stuff and think he's got the great ones — Chandler, Macdonald, Parker — watching over him as he writes every page."

Funny — they say the same thing about Connelly. Both writers deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and other greats of tight and tense prose, including James M. Cain.

Connelly's comparison of Lehane to Robert B. Parker is particularly apt. Not only was Parker the definitive chronicler of the Boston gumshoe — his creation, Spenser, is one of the greats of the form — but their writing shares similarities.

In the world of freelancing, writers are often paid by the word. Parker wrote as if he was charged by the word. We can all learn from Parker. Reading him is like a mental suppository — by example, he helps us clean the worthless shit out of our brains and focus on what's important. Both Lehane and Connelly have learned much from Parker. (Be sure to check out Connelly's latest, The Reversal, which shows him — once again — at the top of his game.)

Lehane's Moonlight Mile is written with verbal economy that the best of this genre demands. Starting this book is like stepping on a high-speed train. There's no getting off until you reach your destination.

For Moonlight Mile, Lehane brings back two of his greatest fictional creations, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. They were the young couple that tracked down a missing child a dozen years back in Gone Baby Gone. In the bitter-taste ending of that book, Patrick and Angie returned the 4-year-old girl to her shit-heel of a mother, taking her away from her "kidnappers," the benign aunt and uncle who loved the little girl and wanted to rescue her from a life of squalor and diminished expectations.

Now, Amanda, that little girl, is a gifted 16-year-old. And she's missing again.

Returning Amanda to her abusive mother all those years ago nearly cost Patrick his relationship with Angie. It took years, but they got through it. Now that they are married and have a child of their own, they're faced with a big decision: What do we do this time?

Patrick, for his part, wants to make amends. He wants to make right what he had helped make wrong.

Patrick has been doing some freelance private-investigator work, often with Angie's help. It's mostly insurance and fraud stuff, and he's hoping to be hired on full-time by a regular client.

Suddenly, thanks to Amanda, he has a purpose beyond those mundane-if-lucrative assignments. With this greater purpose, he is thrown into the paths of Russian mobsters, gang members and pedophiles. His family is in danger and he risks his life, but he has a moral battle to fight.

As always, Lehane turns the story points of his books into moral crises we feel in the pit of our guts. His earlier Mystic River was wrenching in a way that few books have been. It bored into your soul and each turn of the page caused further heartbreak, but we couldn't stop because that's what life is, after all.

It's a shame that writers as gifted as Lehane and Connelly (and Parker, for that matter) are found in the crime-fiction section of the bookstore. People in love with great stories well told, people in love with literature, for God's sake, would adore these books.

To keep things in perspective: I suppose if Dostoyevsky published Crime and Punishment today, he'd be on that same shelf with Connelly and Lehane.

A former faculty member at the University of Florida, William McKeen now chairs the journalism department at Boston University.

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