Dennis Lehane’s new novel, Since We Fell, kicks off in the mode of classic noir: “On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-seventh year, Rachel shot her husband dead.” The shooting takes place where we’ve come to expect it in Lehane’s books, “on a boat in Boston harbor,” just a few miles from the spot where the bodies of gangland murder victims get dumped in Lehane’s Mystic River.
But then things start to get weird.
The odd turn begins with the flashback to Rachel’s mother, now apparently deceased, who would have predicted it all. The cynical, never-married author of a “famous book on how to stay married” tells her 10-year-old daughter, “A man is the stories he tells about himself, and most of those stories are lies. Never look too closely. If you uncover his lies, it’ll humiliate you both. Best just to live with the bullshit.”
And thus begins a gripping novel about Rachel, a woman grappling with the damage caused by her mother and tracking down her father’s identity. But Lehane gives little indication as to how the shooting could fit into Rachel’s story as it unfolds. In fact, after the prologue that teases the shooting, physical violence all but disappears from the novel.
Since We Fell, for the most part, tells two connected stories: a successful journalist’s prolonged search for her father, and the public implosion of her career. As Lehane told Paste in a recent interview, he set out to “write about different types of violence” than the kind that occurs in his previous novels. He wanted to “write about a girl who was never hit in her life, but whose mother was possibly the worst mother I ever created, [who] does so much psychological violence…Can I do it without a gun? Can I do it without a fist fight?”
Lehane, author of Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island, has a history of writing a certain type of hard-bitten characters. But Since We Fell will defy readers’ expectations. “My guiding principle,” Lehane says, “is a great Humphrey Bogart line: ‘All you owe the audience is a great performance,’ and I take that extremely seriously. But after that, I don’t owe you anything. I don’t owe you the book you expect, that’s for sure.”
Even as Since We Fell departs from the physical violence featured in Lehane’s earlier work, it represents a homecoming of sorts for the Boston-born novelist. Lehane’s last two books, the Edgar Award-winning Live By Night and World Gone By, take place in the rum-running underworlds of Prohibition-era Tampa and Havana. Most of Lehane’s best-known work, from the searing noir Mystic River to the hard-boiled Kenzie-Gennaro series, draws on the working-class Dorchester neighborhood where Lehane was raised.
Lehane returns to Boston in his new book, but the contemporary, bistro-blanketed, gastropub-dotted Back Bay Boston of Since We Fell feels light years removed from the city evoked in his earlier novels. In the vast majority of his books, Lehane concedes, “I write about the working class. It’s what I want to continue writing about, it’s who I understand.” In Since We Fell, he says, “I’m writing about yuppies, and I’m writing about Back Bay. I’m writing about the new Boston—the Boston I’ve been living in for the last 10 years. So this is also a Boston that I understand.”
Writing from the perspective of an ascendant TV journalist in contemporary Back Bay allows Lehane to explore the nuances within a world of modern-day urban professionals—while retaining the same attraction to “outsider” characters in a different social realm. Rachel’s baggage from childhood and her enduring sense of abandonment keep her in a perpetual state of dislocation even as she’s initially climbing through the media ranks.
Lehane says he had little difficulty writing Since We Fell from Rachel’ perspective, despite the fact that he’d never written an entire book from a woman’s point of view before. “When I was in college and in grad school, I wrote probably 50 percent of my short stories from a female perspective,” he recalls. “I’ve wanted to do this for a while without knowing it. It’s not a gender or a race issue that I have a problem with when I write. One of the easiest point of views I ever did was [1920s African-American baseball player] Luther Laurence in The Given Day. Writing for him just felt really comfortable. I have the most trouble writing characters who aren’t outsiders, or certainly outliers in some way, and Rachel’s a total outsider. The whole first part of the book is called ‘Rachel in the Mirror.’ And she’s on the wrong side.”
Choosing “yuppies” as his central characters also enables Lehane to write culture clashes that play out across the class divide. One of Since We Fell’s most intense scenes happens when Rachel tracks down a man who might be her father, a deceased bartender named Lee. She drives to a derelict factory town in Maryland to visit Maddy, Lee’s widow, and asks her if Lee ever wanted to be “something besides a bartender.” Maddy replies, “The only people who ask questions like, ‘Did he want to be something besides a bartender,’ are people who can become whatever they want. The rest of us are just Americans.”
“This is two Americas sitting on a bench,” Lehane explains, “and there isn’t gonna be a moment of connection, a moment of closure in this. Rachel realizes [she’s asked] a question of privilege. You couldn’t ask that question unless you came from privilege, because it presupposes that you have a choice to be whatever you want to be.”
Perhaps Since We Fell’s most wrenching episode occurs in a squatters’ camp in Haiti, where a cholera epidemic has broken out in the aftermath of an earthquake and a hurricane. Rachel has been dispatched to cover the crisis on assignment as a TV reporter. “I didn’t realize it when I was writing it at all, but when I got to the end I thought, this is like a twin to Shutter Island,” Lehane says. “It’s very much about how the intersection of a type of global helplessness crosses paths with personal helplessness and causes an implosion. And Rachel, with all of her abandonment issues, is ill-equipped to step into a place that God has abandoned. It’s the global and the personal collapsing in on her.”
Lehane continues, “You look at these places where you go, and see you won or you lost the geographical lottery. What so defines who you are as a person is where you were lucky enough or unlucky enough to be born.”
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.