Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island

If you begin Dennis Lehane’s psychological thriller, Shutter Island, there is a good chance you will stay up all night reading it. A Boston Herald reviewer cautions readers, “Should you choose to go there, be warned: A part of your psyche might never return” (Mitchell 2003). The story is so strange and captivating that you will remember it long after finishing the book. “To read Dennis Lehane’s Shutter IslandWashington Post’s Patrick Anderson (2003) observes, “is to enter a nightmare of madness, violence and deception. To finish the novel – and it would be criminal even to hint at its ending – is to be disoriented, perhaps angered, and finally to reflect on the ability of a master storyteller to play havoc with our minds.”

The Times calls Lehane a “tender craftsman with a tough centre.” His books have appeared on the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century and won four Shamus Awards for best private eye novels. Lehane also won the Anthony Award for his acclaimed novel, Mystic River. Author of nine mystery novels, one play, and a collection of short stories, Lehane earned a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from Florida International University. Born and raised in one of Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods, Lehane draws upon this setting for many of his novels. Before becoming a writer, he worked as a counselor with mentally handicapped and abused children, a job that has given him insight into the psychology of marginalized people.

Shutter Island begins in 1993 with a psychiatrist writing about the events of 1954, a year when dangerous prisoner, Rachel Solando, escaped from an insane asylum. Teddy Daniels and a fellow U.S. federal marshal are sent to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane on Boston Harbor’s Shutter Island . They learn that Solando escaped from a heavily guarded room, slipped through three interior checkpoints, passed a room filled with orderlies, and either climbed over a wall with electric security wire or passed through a guarded gate. As the marshals investigate further, they suspect that sinister cover-ups and ominous events are taking place on the island’s remote facility. This locked-room mystery will keep you guessing until the last page.

Lehane has that “all-too-rare capability,” claims Kernick, “of drawing you in from the very first page, and once you’re in, he’s not letting go.” As readers move deeper into the narrative, they are confronted with one surprise after another. Like Agatha Christie, Dennis Lehane is a master of deception. “Nothing on the island is as it seems,” Lazarus (2003) notes, “and it’s this constantly shifting sense of reality that gives Shutter Island its juice.” The ending is simply a blockbuster; it will make you want to reread the novel.

This historical mystery (see my post on this subgenre) is framed within a journal written four decades after the events. As you read the novel, you will wonder why it begins with a psychiatrist who is kept off-stage for most of the novel.

The cold-war McCarthy era is brilliantly evoked and intimately connected with the events of the novel. The shaping influence of violence and war underpins everything that happens on Shutter Island. This is the story of a decorated World War II veteran, a man coming to terms with the violence he has experienced throughout his life.

A haunted Gothic atmosphere permeates this hard-boiled novel (see my post on the Gothic influence on mystery novels), providing a menacing backdrop for a psychologically penetrating story. The imagery of water, enclosures, and islands reverberates throughout the novel, giving readers clues to the mystery.

“As he did with Mystic River in 2001,” claims Denver Post Books Editor, Tom Walker (2003), “Lehane has created a dark work with terrific dialogue and a troubled protagonist. Mystic River raised the bar for Lehane; Shutter Island puts it higher still.” Readers will agree.

Anderson, Patrick. “Quoth the Ravin.” The Washington Post. April 28, 2003.

Lehane, Dennis. Shutter Island. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Mitchell, Rob. “Mystery Master Lehane Builds Delicious Dread in Fantastic ‘Island.’” Boston Herald. May 13, 2003.

Lazarus, David. “Detective Has a Crazy Time Tracking an Insane Escapee.” The San Francisco Chronicle. May 4, 2003.

Walker, Tom. “Get Set To Shudder on Trip to Shutter Island.” Denver Post. April 27, 2003.