CORRIDOR of MYSTERY
VOL. 4, No. 25
Imagine an island packed
with Hannibal Lecters
By RON MILLER
Right now it might be a safe bet that Dennis Lehane is the hottest young mystery writer in America. His previous book, "Mystic River," was a critical sensation and a best seller. It's now about to emerge as a new big budget film directed by Clint Eastwood.
Lehane already had the attention of contemporary mystery fans for his series of detective novels, including "Prayers for Rain." But now he's stepping up to the dark thriller category of mystery with his latest novel, "Shutter Island" (William Morrow, $25.95), which looks like another big movie in the making.
Though I ultimately was disappointed in "Shutter Island"--I figured out most of the "surprises" long before the ending--it's two-thirds a smashing success because it hauls you into a nether-world of stark terror like you've seldom found in modern mystery fiction.
The time is 1954. Our hero is Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal who's sent to isolated Shutter Island on the coast of New England to help find a "patient" who has escaped from the ultra-secure Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, the only functioning facility on the island. This is the place where the worst, most insane, most violent criminals are sent to do their time while, presumably, being treated for their mental illness.
But Teddy and Chuck Aule, the partner assigned to him for this mission, quickly discover there's something very dark and mysterious going on at Ashecliffe that may involve unauthorized, Nazi-like experiments on the mental patients.
Teddy also has an ulterior motive for wanting to visit Ashecliffe. He believes the man responsible for the death of Teddy's wife--an arsonist named Andrew Laeddis--may have been incarcerated there. In the back of his mind, he believes he may corner Laeddis and wreak his vengeance on the man who caused the death of the most important person in his life.
Right away Teddy and Chuck are utterly mystified by the "escape" of the patient they're after--a beautiful young woman named Rachel who drowned her three children, then sat their corpses around the dinner table, acting as if they were still alive and her family still intact. Somehow she managed to get out of a maximum security cell with barred windows, a securely locked door, monitored night and day by armed guards. Moreover, the hospital staff already has searched every square foot of the compound and most of the island without finding any trace of her.
Yet when Teddy discovers a coded message Rachel left behind, he's even more bewildered. Her message seems to say there are 66 acknowledged "patients" at Ashecliffe--but also a 67th patient that nobody recognizes.
Just when Teddy and Chuck begin to worry that there are people in the Ashecliffe staff who don't want them to discover anything about what's going on at Shutter Island, they're hit by the worst hurricane in decades, the power supply breaks down, the electronic cell doors come unlocked--and 66 criminally insane monsters are suddenly loose.
It's like a special Halloween party thrown by 66 Hannibal Lecters. And Teddy isn't anxious to be the guest of honor.
Lehane is deft at fostering an atmosphere of terror and creating a credible hero for you to identify with, but "Shutter Island" has neither the depth of feeling nor the insight of "Mystic River," a masterful novel about three men haunted by their acts of the past. Teddy Daniels is haunted, all right, but you're never quite sure if he's being haunted by outside forces or if he's haunting himself into a hopeless muddle.
What "Shutter Island" seems to succeed at most is building the framework for a really stunning horror movie. I nominate Bruce Willis to play Teddy. It would be a worthy role as the long-awaited follow-up to his sensitive and forceful performance in "The Sixth Sense."
Even if you go along with me and don't like the conclusion of "Shutter Island," it's still an entertaining adventure--and a further demonstration of the growing skills of Dennis Lehane as a master of mystery.
©2003 by Ron Miller. The Ron Miller caricature is © 2001 by Jim Hummel. The book cover reproduction is ©2003 by Wm. Morrow Publishing.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently teaches classes in mystery and related topics at Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
Home About Us Archives Talkback Shopping Mall