Everyone seems to agree that Dennis Lehane easily qualifies as one of America’s most powerful writers of crime/thriller fiction. With an extremely popular detective series to his credit — not to mention his award-winning Mystic River — Lehane has become one of the most well-paid script writers on television. (He is currently writing for the HBO series, “The Wire.”)
Several years ago, Lehane’s New Yorker short story, “Until Gwen,” attracted considerable attention — enough, in fact, to prompt the author to expand it into a play entitled “Coronado” and parlay the entire package into this short story collection.
Coronado (the book) consists of five short stories and a play. All of the works share a common quality: a half-dozen psychotic males who commit acts of violence with a chilling casualness. However, they often find themselves the hapless victims of other ruthless predators (usually their wives, fathers, lovers or best friends).
“Running Out of Dogs,” unwinds like a rural South Carolina version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Since the two good ole boys, Elgin and Blue, have grown up in the town of Eden, Elgin has gradually assumed the role of protector for his diminutive, troubled friend. Even though Elgin is tormented by his own devils (Vietnam), he tries to shield the misfit (Blue) from tormentors.
But when Eden’s mayor hires Blue to kill stray dogs (their presence offends a local land developer), Blue acquires a kind of local respectability. He acquires confidence and ventures into new territory — the pursuit of the sensual Jewel Lut, an unhappily married woman with her own hidden agenda. As the town of Eden watches and gossips, events move toward disaster. Blue proves so effective at his new job he eventually eliminates all of the dogs. Now what? Blue seems unwilling to return to obscurity.
“ICU” has a surreal, nightmarish quality. Daniel, the protagonist, thinks he is being stalked, but he has no idea why. Finally, he abandons his home and his job, fleeing from unknown stalkers who increase daily in both numbers and menace. Finally, Daniel blunders into refuge at a hospital and hides in the ICU where he experiences a mysterious sense of well-being. Indeed, all of the patients appear to be in hiding, and although he knows that he will eventually be discovered, his newly-found common bond makes him linger with the other victims. (This story resembles a Kafka parable.)
“Gone Down to Corpus” appears to be based on some of the news reports about astonishing vandalism — bored teenagers who break into expensive homes and engage in rampant destruction. In Lehane’s story, the mayhem is prompted by resentment — members of the lower class wreaking vengeance on the wealthy middle/upper class.
However, this story has a provocative conclusion: when the destructive teens find themselves in a noted politician’s home, filled with lavish furnishings and expensive trappings, they are suddenly incapable of acting. The grandeur of their surroundings seems to have a power that intimidates them. Like “ICU,” this story appears to be a metaphor of society’s inability to revolt against their real tormentors — the ruling class.
“Mushrooms” seethes with the same violence and brutality that dominates the nightly news — drive-by shootings and casual violence in drug-fueled territorial wars. However, a Lehane trademark is incongruity — the perverse mix of contrasting elements. In “Mushrooms,” it is adolescent puppy love in the brutal world of drugs and mayhem. “Mushrooms” resembles a blood-soaked valentine.
The latter part of Coronado contains both the beautifully crafted short story, “Until Gwen,” and the dramatic work which is an expanded version “Until Gwen.” Unfortunately, the dramatic work (“Coronado”) fails to maintain the taunt tension of the original.
Told in the second person, “Until Gwen” is a masterful rendition of growing suspense. Bobby, the narrator, relates two stories: one concerns his doomed relationship with his father — a man who kills without reason; the other is his love for Gwen, a woman who is one of his father’s victims. There are other incidentals — a missing diamond and a bungled robbery — but the crux of Bobbie’s tale lies in his final confrontation with his father behind a carnival tent.
Lehane attempts to expand “Until Gwen” into a two-act play by adding two additional plots and thereby presenting a trio of doomed lovers. For this reviewer, the play doesn’t work. The additional characters merely diffuse and dilute the explosive tension of the original short story.
But Coronado still contains five classic Lehane short stories and some of the best writing in current thriller/suspense fiction.