Friday, December 5, 2008


As part of Patti Abbot’s Friday Book Project, I thought I’d talk a little about a favorite book of mine. It was a novel that really divided opinion. Using a British term, this novel is what we would term a ‘Marmite’ read. Some readers hated it, while others loved it. I think it’s time to revaluate it, rediscover it and understand the horrors of the reality we may live in. Reality is something that troubles me, and yes this book is Existential with a capital E.

Considering all the hullabaloo about Dennis Lehane’s ‘The Given Day’; let’s consider the book he published five years ago, the one before his Boston historical opus. This book was originally optioned for film by Wolfgang Petersen, but is now currently in production from Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio and re-titled ‘Ashcliffe’.

I am of course referring to “sHUTteR iSLaNd” by Dennis Lehane a novel that still haunts me and one that I nominated as one of my Favourite reads in January Magazine’s best of 2003 selection.

When Shutter Island’s release was announced in late 2002; I got very excited as I just love thrillers set in mental institutions, featuring the deranged. A great deal of my fascination with all things mental is due to my father being an psychiatrist [now retired]. My father is always amused at my fascination with Dr Hannibal Lecter, and the works of Thomas Harris. ‘Shutter Island’ looked like such a work that would appeal to my taste for thrillers featuring the mentally ill and deranged.

I recall that the US release by Morrow was planned for Easter 2003, while the UK publishers Transworld would not be releasing it until the autumn of the same year. I managed to organise a copy of a US Proof from my contact at Morrow [Lehane’s editor]; but by a fluke, another US contact of mine had somehow got a photocopy of Lehane’s manuscript [!] and as he owed me a huge favour airmailed it to me.

So as the Easter weekend approached I recall vividly that due to work constraints I was only able to have a few days off. My wife had decided to take to take our kids to Ireland to stay with her parents for a month [due to the stresses of a work project that had me away from home]. I prayed that one of the copies of Shutter Island would arrive for me to enjoy during my solitude over the Easter weekend. I needed the break from my day-job. So on the Wednesday night I took my wife and kids to the airport and returned home late. I was off work the following day, so I got up really early and brewed coffee and sat by my front door and awaited the postman. I reckoned by my calculations that at least one of the two copies of Shutter Island would arrive Thursday. I was worried as Friday was a public holiday, so there would be no post. I knew I’d drive myself demented for two days if the book didn’t arrive Thursday. When the doorbell rang, I sprang to attention and greeted the postman as if he were Lehane himself. Thanking the postman I grabbed the package and tore it open. Contained was a Xerox of Lehane’s manuscript. While I brewed coffee, I stared at the unbound pages and ran my fingers over the words as if it were the Rosetta Stone.

Then I sprawled onto my sofa and balanced the manuscript on my stomach and started to read it placing the spent-pages on the ground as I found myself lost within this very dark tale was just so hypnotic. When I finished I realized I had been crying. The plot featured the collapse of a marriage, and the ensuing madness that happens when people lose their minds. There were children also involved at the crux of the tale; and as a father myself [missing my wife and kids who were away], Lehane’s tale really upset me. The empty house was eerily quiet, with just me and this dangerous book and the thoughts it brought into my mind. The following day I wrote a review and emailed it to out. On the Saturday morning, the postman came with the Morrow proof copy of ‘Shutter Island’ and so what’s a man to do, but I read it again and again it made my head spin.

If you’ve yet to go to Shutter Island – here’s a guide -

Like the Hurricane that batters the island that gives this book its name, I feel battered and bruised by the complexity and ambition of this deeply disturbing novel. It starts simply enough with two US Marshals arriving on Shutter Island, an institution for the criminally insane off the coast of Boston. They have been assigned to find a missing inmate - a mysterious woman who murdered her children and was incarcerated for life at the facility. During their surreal investigation, it becomes difficult to distinguish the staff from the inmates. Rumours of mind control experiments with drugs as well as surgery abound, while all around a hurricane is gathering to smash at the facility. The journey that the two Marshals endure takes them right to the core of Shutter Island. They have to face up to the latent dark truths that lie waiting for them, hidden at the very top of the lighthouse which acts as a sentinel watching over the proceedings like an all-seeing eye.

Shutter Island is simply spoken my best read this year. This is all the more staggering in a year that has given us pure excellence from the crime/mystery genre. It is just amazing how Lehane snaps back the boundaries by combining the mystery genre with the sinister and paranoid world of Philip K Dick, and the whole question of reality, madness and evil. It is also deeply moving and written with a hallucinogenic almost hypnotic style. The structure of the novel is at times scary, at times worrying, and at times close to bringing you to tears, such is the beauty of his words. It is difficult to summarise the plot any further due to the problem of giving away the end.

The astute will listen to the crazy whispers that nibble at your earlobe throughout the book, but then the ending rips off your ear like the teeth of Mike Tyson. A robust and intricately structured story, full of insight and compassion about the dark side of the human dream, and a book that will really divide Lehane fans like a cleaver. Highly recommended for those who like challenge

One of the treats of Bouchercon Baltimore was finally meeting Dennis Lehane. I took time to thank him for all the pleasure and insight his work has given me over the years. I naturally told him how totally brilliant I consider ‘Shutter Island’. It was a magical moment. He recalled my letters I sent when he started out on his Patrick and Angie series in the 1990’s. The reason why he remembered my letters were the British stamps and my requests for signed bookplates [I mailed him each time a new book came out].

Afterward I was shaking and I remarked to fellow Boston thriller-writer Chris Mooney “I hope he doesn’t think I’m some kindda nut, like one of his characters from Shutter Island?” as I was conscious of gushing like a fan-boy. Mooney laughed, and replied “Ali, Lehane knows who you are.” In that moment I was completely Gone, Baby Gone.


  1. I am reading The Given Day right now (well, not *right* now as I'm typing this ;-) Anyway, back in 2003, I was looking for Mystic River 2 and didn't get it. As such, Shutter Island is step-child in the Lehane family. However, I knew enough to realize that it was something different, just not MR2. Thanks for your essay. I'm going to revisit it.

  2. It's hard for me to think of Shutter Island as a "forgotten" book, considering how much I enjoyed, and how I always tho0ught it was an excellent, and innovative, addition to Lehane's oeuvre. I guess that should teach me not to assume too much about how closely my taste and attention mirrors the reading public at large, even those devoted to crime.

  3. Ali Karim, International Man of Mystery! Had no idea you had your own blog.

    Anyway, alert the media! We finally like the same book. SHUTTER ISLAND made my top 100 all time favorite books list. Definitely a book that stays with you.

  4. Hi Guys - thanks for the kind words

    Scott - Try SHUTTER ISLAND again, it is in my opinion and Jo's also one of the finest reads ever, and Dana - it sold the worst of any of Lehane's work. Some people just didn't get it.

    And Jo good hearing from you - I still Rap at The Rap Sheet, Shots and other places, got to keep active otherwise the mind gets anxious thanks to the economic woes!


  5. Ali, I can't find your e-mail so I'm posting it here: the trailer for Shutter Island:

    Enjoy! My wife liked it and I think I'll give Shutter Island another go.