In The Spotlight: Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone

SpotlightHello, All,

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


Filed under Dennis Lehane, Gone

38 responses to “In The Spotlight: Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone

  1. I like the spotlight section, it brings many other to receive their recognition and appreciation. Bravo!

  2. Clarissa Draper

    I love novels that are morally ambiguous because it mirrors real life. No one, even mothers, are perfectly good nor perfectly evil. I can see why PIs work in this novel. It’s a book I want to read, especially because the book I’m writing is a missing child case as well. Thanks for another great Spotlight.

    • Clarissa – Glad you enjoyed this. This is not an easy book to read. That said though, it really does show what it’s like to work a missing child case, and what happens to everyone involved as a result. And you’re right. Almost nothing in life is ‘black and white,’ is it? I’ll be really interested in reading your novel when it comes out.

  3. I’m very tempted by this one as I like novels where everything isn’t ‘t black or white as that often reflects real life. I also like stories where PI’s take the lead . Another fantastic spotlight Margot – thank you

    • Thank you, Cleo – glad you enjoyed this. You’re quite right that life is not ‘black and white.’ And neither are the characters in this novel. I hope that if you read it, you’ll be glad that you did. May I suggest you choose a time when you’re ready for a hard-hitting story. This is not a light novel at all.

  4. This is a series I have not been able to continue reading. Although I liked the first novel in the series, I stopped in the middle of Darkness, Take My Hand. The hard-edged aspect was too much for me in that one. I still have copies of Sacred (#3) and Gone Baby Gone (and I watched the movie), so I may be able to handle those. I think Dennis Lehane is a talented writer, but just too tense, too gritty for me. I read Mystic River, and finished it, but not seeking out more like that.

    • Tracy – Lehane’s work is very gritty and intense, no doubt about it, and Gone, Baby, Gone is no exception. In that sense, it’s not for everyone. If you do decide to read it, I’ll be interested in whether you think the ‘story’ part was overcome by the grit.

  5. I’m slooowly being able to handle reading grittier stuff and on topics that usually disturb me. Funny, as my kids get older it becomes easier again as it was before they were born. I may tentatively put this one on my TBR list. Thanks, Margot. 🙂

    • Elizabeth – I know exactly what you mean. This is definitely the sort of book that might be unsettling to parents of young children. The subject matter is difficult even for people who aren’t parents of young ones. If you do take a chance on this one, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

  6. The subject of this book – although it plays in a very different setting – is similar to the Madeleine McCann abduction case which so shocked the UK a few years ago. The whole media furore that followed, the demonisation of the parents and other adults who happened to be around there at the time, the lack of clear answers… I do get rather tearful at child neglect or abuse or abduction stories since I’ve had children of my own, but I think it’s very well handled in this book.

    • Marina Sofia – I think it is too. And you’re right; there are similarities between some of the things in this novel and the real-life disappearance of Madeleine McCann. And I think you’ve put your finger on one of the most difficult things for anyone: the lack of clear answers. When you don’t know exactly what happens, it can be far worse than the truth. Like you, I get upset at stories where children are harmed or at great risk; they are so vulnerable. And having raised one, I feel that extra connection.

  7. This is a book I very much like, it impressed me with its handling of such a difficult subject and burned itself onto my memory, particularly because of the ending. Like so many of us I am not keen on books where children are mistreated, but this one was very sensitively done.

    • Moira – I thought the ending was handled expertly. To be honest, it made it difficult for me to discuss the novel without giving away spoilers, but that only speaks all the better of Lehane. I think the subject of the mistreatment of children is handled well in the novel, although the topic is very upsetting. Not an easy read at all, but as you say, memorable.

  8. kathy d.

    This was a very gritty, hard-edged book. And there are neighborhoods in and around Boston with this very hard edge and toughness. Not one I’d want to live in or near.
    That said, I disagreed with the ending as a moral issue. Had I been
    the detectives, I don’t know what I would have done, but not what they did, would have tried to find a compromise.
    “Crimes” are of different degrees, with mitigating circumstances often.
    One person’s criminal act is not the same as another’s. Helping someone with assisted suicide if they are terminally ill is not the same as outright premeditated murder or manslaughter, especially involuntary.
    The book also shows the failure of a decent social services agency, which might have solved the family problems.
    People differ over these things: Two friends who are social workers differ about putting abused children into foster care; one is for it, one against it in most cases.
    So, it’s a tough issue to figure out.

    • Kathy – It is indeed a tough issue to figure out isn’t it? And I think that’s what come out in this novel. And part of what’s discussed in this novel raises the issue you did: what about the circumstances involved in things people do? I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling the novel for those who’ve not read it. But you’re right; there are all sorts of issues raised here, including social service issue. And yes, it’s definitely a hard-edged novel.

  9. kathy d.

    Well, these hard issues spur on an in-depth discussion ever time this book is raised. So, the author presented an ambiguity, which is worth thinking and talking about. That is an earmark of a good author.

  10. While I really want to read this book, I am not sure I’ll be able to handle it. But yet another great Spotlight.

    • Natasha – Thanks for the kind words. It is most definitely not an easy, light book. It’s the sort of novel you have to be ready to read. But if you do get to the point where you’re reay to read it, I hope you’ll be glad you did.

  11. Great stuff Margot – this is probably my favourite of the Kenzie and Gennaro series and I thought it was also turned into a decent movie (though they changed the story between the two detectives a bit),

    • Thank you, Sergio. I think it’s a well-done novel, too, on a lot of levels. I thought the film was a decent adaptation, too, ‘though as you say, they changed things between the two detectives. And there were a few other changes that the purist in me wasn’t too excited to see. Still, a film worth watching.

  12. I have read Dennis Lehane but not this book. I think he’s a really talented writer. He just transports you right into the middle of the world he wants you in. I have seen the movie of this however and it is a very difficult one. It’s not clear cut at all and will have some readers squirming in their seats. I should read more by him actually.

    • Rebecca – I think you’re quite right about Lehane. He’s very skilled at drawing the reader into the world he creates. And this novel is no exception. Like the film, it’s difficult, and like the film, it’s not at all clear-cut. But that’s part of what engages the reader, I think.

  13. I love the tale of the morally ambiguous! This looks great and I tried not to read all your responses as it is clear some of your readers don’t mind spilling the beans! Sometimes the very good are also prone to doing things that end up badly – like The Quiet American by Grahame Greene. Not a mystery but yet…

    • Jan – Stories of morally ambiguous people and situations really can be very, very compelling. As you say, sometimes good people do things that work out very badly. Sometimes people who’ve done awful things do them for what a lot of people would call good reasons. That’s part of what makes these stories so interesting. And The Quiet American is a great example of that.

  14. I’ve read a handful of Lehane novels, and the ones I remember are gut-wrenching. I’ve avoided reading this one because I watched the movie, but thanks for spotlighting it. Maybe I’ll compare the book to the movie someday, in all my spare time 🙂

    • Rebecca – Granted this is not an easy novel to read, and you’re right that a lot of Lehane’s work is that way. It’s interesting too how having watched the film first could affect the way one approaches a novel. I understand why you’ve held off on reading this one, just on that score alone. If you do read it at some point, I’ll be interested in what you think.

  15. This is one of my favorite Lehane novels because the plot and the characters kept me turning the pages to the end. I often avoid stories that involve crimes against children, but Lehane has a way of making the story heart-breaking but too compelling to put down.

    • Pat – You put that very well. The story really is heart-breaking, and Lehane addresses some truly painful topics. But at the same time, the story is compelling and keeps the reader’s (well, this reader’s, anyway…) attention.

  16. Keishon

    I love Lehane because his work is gritty and hard-edged and can make you think. Gone, Baby, Gone is memorable for the moral dilemma(s) facing the characters that ended up having an impact on their relationship. It’s one of my favorites in the series. Hopefully this isn’t too spoilerish to say that I sided with Angie if we lived in that kind of world without laws. The follow-up, Moonlight Mile, was a utter disappointing although somewhat entertaining read. The other favorite is Darkness, Take My Hand which was a scary, brilliant and suspenseful read. I see some readers have already mentioned it 😀

    • Keishon – I couldn’t agree more that Lehane’s work does make you think. He doesn’t offer easy answers either, which makes his work all the more compelling. The topics he deals with, after all, do not have easy answers. And that’s certainly true in Gone, Baby, Gone. Interesting too to hear what everything thinks is the best in the Kenzie/Gennaro series. I should take a poll…

      • Keishon

        A poll would be nice although I would be hard pressed to pick just one as I thought he had several good ones including his non-series work like Mystic River, Shutter Island and so forth.

  17. kathy d.

    Mystic River is very good. So is the movie. Both gut-wrenching.
    Moral dilemmas are good: they make readers and movie watchers think.

  18. Col

    Superb book and a great film also. Stays with you afterwards.

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