Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels raise very difficult and challenging moral and ethical issues even as they tell the story of a crime and its investigation. They make readers think about what they might do in a similar situation. Such a novel is Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, so to show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.
Dorchester, Massachusetts PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro get a visit from Lionel and Beatrice McCready, who have a heartbreaking case for the detectives. Their four-year-old niece Amanda disappeared from her mother Helene’s home one night, and hasn’t been seen since then. Kenzie and Gennaro have already heard about the case; the child’s picture has been posted everywhere and the media has made much of it. There’s a large number of Boston-area police looking for the child, and the public’s been urged to pass on any information or leads to the authorities.
With all of this attention and so many police officers already working the case, Kenzie and Gennaro don’t see what more they can do. Besides, they’re recovering from a previous case and are in no rush to get involved in such a terrible situation. Chances are that even if the child is still alive, she’s already been seriously damaged psychologically, and neither detective is eager to get enmeshed in the emotional minefield of a missing child. But Beatrice McCready especially is absolutely determined to do something for Amanda and as the saying goes, she won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. So the detectives are finally persuaded to at least meet the missing girl’s mother and find out more.
From the moment they do meet her, neither detective is impressed with Helene McCready. To say the least, she’s not an attentive mother. She wasn’t at home at the time Amanda was taken; in fact, she’d left the girl alone. The more Kenzie and Gennaro learn about her, the more convinced they are that she doesn’t provide a safe, loving environment for Amanda. Still, she is the child’s mother. More than that, Beatrice reminds them that, whatever they may think of Helene, Amanda is somewhere, possibly in terrible danger, and needs all the help she can get.
Finally, and reluctantly, Kenzie and Gennaro begin to look into the case. As they start to gather the facts, it becomes clear that there are several possibilities here. For one thing, there have been other child abductions. It could be that the same people are also responsible for taking Amanda. And then there’s the fact that Helene has a drug habit. In order to support that habit and get extra money, she’s gotten mixed up with some very nasty drug dealers. And at one point it comes out that she was involved, however innocently, in a plan to double-cross them. These are people who could easily be angry enough with her to take Amanda as revenge if they thought she cheated them. It’s also possible that someone completely different – someone who isn’t yet known to the police, as the saying goes – could be responsible. And what about Helene herself? After all, there’ve been mothers before who were responsible for the deaths of their children.
Kenzie and Gennaro follow up on the leads they get, only to find that nothing is really as it seems in this case. The closer they get to the truth, the harder it is to really know who’s trustworthy, who isn’t, and who’s telling the truth. In the end though, they discover what happened to Amanda MacCready.
This novel takes place mostly in and around working-class Dorchester, and Lehane places the reader distinctly there. It’s a ‘hard luck’ sort of place with little hope or optimism. There are plenty of empty shells of buildings, sleazy bars and unemployed, hopeless people. The police who work the area have seen some unspeakable things, and there’s an atmosphere of decay in the area. Kenzie grew up there, and knows a few people who still live there. Through his eyes we get to see what life in this place is like.
This isn’t really a story about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ There is a great deal of moral ambiguity about a lot of the characters, including Kenzie and Gennaro. In several places in the novel, they’re faced with difficult choices, and there are no easy answers to some of the questions raised by the search for Amanda. In that sense, this is a difficult novel to read. Readers who like clear choices will notice this. Readers who prefer novels that can spark serious debates will be pleased.
The novel is also difficult in another way. Any story that has to do with the abduction of children and violence against them can be upsetting and disturbing, and this one is no different. Readers who are unsettled by the topic of harm coming to children will want to be aware that child abduction is a major theme in the novel. There is plenty of violence against adults too, some of it ugly. Lehane doesn’t ‘sugar coat’ the reality of child abduction cases, the reality of life in Dorchester or the kinds of people Kenzie and Gennaro encounter as they work this case.
The mystery itself – what happened to Amanda McCready – is solved by PIs. So we follow along as they interview witnesses, get the records they can and use their contacts. The case isn’t solved by intuition or a lot of coincidence. It’s also worth noting that the fact that Kenzie and Gennaro are Pis gives them an edge, since very few people in the area trust the police.
The pace and suspense level are important elements in this novel. There’s the sense of urgency that goes with the fact that a little child has gone missing, and that every moment counts when it comes to looking for her. There’s also the fact that some dangerous people are mixed up in this case. One dead PI more or less won’t matter to them at all. Kenzie and Gennario know this too, and although they’re brave, that doesn’t mean they’re not also vulnerable. Perhaps the most important layer of suspense though comes from the fact that as the novel goes on, it’s less and less clear who’s trustworthy and who’s not. It’s also less and less clear who’s right and who’s not.
Gone, Baby, Gone is the hard-edged story of the effects on everyone when a child is abducted. It’s also a look at life in a working-class/poverty stricken area. The novel raises important and challenging larger questions, and features PIs who have to make their way through a very difficult emotionally and physically draining case. But what’s your view? Have you read Gone, Baby, Gone? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 1 September/Tuesday 2 September – A Hank of Hair – Charlotte Jay
Monday 8 September/Tuesday 9 September – Dead Simple – Peter James
Monday 15 September/Tuesday 16 September – A Beautiful Place to Die – Malla Nunn