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Twelve years ago, in Dennis Lehane's novel (turned hit Ben Affleck film) Gone Baby Gone, Boston private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro received a late-night phone call that would upend their lives. A woman named Beatrice McCready asked Patrick and Angela to find her 4-year-old niece Amanda, who was abducted from the home she shared with her mother. As Patrick and Angela closed in on the kidnapper, the case took several shocking and unexpected turns into a moral gray area.
Ethical quandaries of grand proportions are Lehane's specialty -- he has been hailed as one of the greatest American novelists in any genre, but he is best known for his authentic, gritty Boston crime novels that turn on a dime. "It's a constant tension in most of my books, to be honest," he tells NPR's Scott Simon of his success. "In Gone Baby Gone, it was about a good man who made a very very terrible decision, and did very very terrible things to then try to clean up the mess caused by that decision."
"Patrick is always haunted by the fact that the people he really liked in that case [were the bad guys]," he adds, "and the action he really wanted to take was not the action he took. And that's the dramatic fuel."
Now, after more than a decade, Lehane addresses the consequences of the decision that Patrick is ultimately forced to make in the anticipated sequel, Moonlight Mile.
'He Has To Do What Society Demands Of Him'
I think we might have this weird unrealistic expectation that we're supposed be happy. And I just don't think it works that way.Dennis Lehane
Lehane's mysteries are defined by their unexpected twists, but he doesn't mind discussing the decision Patrick makes at the end of Gone Baby Gone. After the book's time on the best-seller's list, Lehane says, "the cat's out of the bag." In the novel's big twist, Patrick discovers that the 4-year-old Amanda was not technically kidnapped, but rescued from her own neglectful, drug-addicted mother and placed into a loving home.
Though Amanda was probably better off with her new family, Lehane knew that Patrick had to confront the federal offense of nabbing a child. "At the end he can't sit there and say it's OK for people to just kidnap whoever they decide is being raised by bad parents," the author says. "He has to do what is right, what society demands of him, which is bring the child back to her parents, to her mother."
"Emotionally, he knows for that particular child that's the bad decision," Lehane adds. "And it haunts him. He's done the right thing, but he was wrong. He's done the wrong thing, but he was right."
Now, in Moonlight Mile, Patrick is contacted again by Beatrice McCready; 12 years have passed, and her niece Amanda, now 16, is missing again.
Patrick has since married his long-time partner Angela, and this time, they find Amanda relatively quickly. Of course, she is furious with them for the choice they made when she was a child. She's also in deep trouble, which becomes the central mystery of the book.
"She's not playing by anybody else's rules, under any circumstances," hints Lehane. "And just because you find her doesn't mean she's going to go with you. As a 16-year-old now she has choices."
"She wasn't terribly hard to find," he says. "And yet there's all these dangerous people who are looking for her. What is her play in all of this?"
When Your Blessings Outweigh Your Regrets
Now that he's married and a father, Patrick's life in Moonlight Mile is no less complicated or morally complex. Caught in the undertow of the recession, he can no longer afford to be an independent contractor and has become an instrument of, for lack of a better term, The Man.
"He has to sell out some of his principles," Lehane says of the investigator. "He's looking to get the 401(k), he's looking to get benefits, he's looking to get, you know, health care. And in order to do that he has to work for a corporation."
Patrick's new work is accompanied by new ethical quandaries. In one particularly disconcerting case, Patrick goes undercover to expose a whistle-blower, a mother named Parry Piper. She's in violation of her contract, but is doing something good for her peers.
When she's taken away, she tells Patrick that he "seemed so real," a haunting indictment that stays with the character throughout his journey.
"Exposing her is something that is going to haunt him throughout the book," says Lehane. "Because again, he's right. He's doing what he's supposed to do. He's doing what his employers hired him to do. He's doing this in order to fulfill his first obligation as a father and as a husband, which is to put food on the table. But what is that costing his soul is certainly one of the questions of the book."
Not that Patrick's work for a private corporation -- or his undercover efforts to expose Parry Piper -- are particularly realistic, Lehane admits.
"Since the days of Spade and Archer, probably more private investigators were actually working for larger firms, for security firms, for brinks," he concedes. "But the archetype, the fictional archetype [of the private detective], has always been of the knight errants."
"You know the American private eye novel is just a continuation of the Western," he adds. "It's where the Western went when the bottom dropped out of the market for Westerns. So the private eye archetype has always been clearly that. There's no connection between the private eyes you see in fiction and real private eyes.
He's done the right thing, but he was wrong. He's done the wrong thing, but he was right.Dennis Lehane
"Real private eyes spend most of their lives cooling their heels outside of courtrooms while waiting to go and testify in insurance cases. It's very authentic, but would make for an extremely boring book."
The realism that characterizes Lehane's books is much more rooted in his characters -- their ethical debates, their disappointments. Toward the end of the book, when Patrick is in the embrace of his family, he states that his blessings outweigh his regrets. In Lehane's opinion, that's a sign of a life well lived.
"I think we might have this weird unrealistic expectation that we're supposed be happy," he says. "And I just don't think it works that way. I don't think it comes even close. But if you can get through a life where the ledger is that you have a 101 blessings and 100 regrets, or 1,001 and a 1,000, then on some level you won."
"You know, as the great line from [the 1963 movie] Hud says," he adds wryly. "'No one gets out of this life alive.'"