I read Dennis Lehane’s mystery-thriller Gone, Baby, Gone back in 2004. I was on something of a Lehane kick that year: I read all four of his Kenzie-Gennaro private eye novels, plus his standalone novel Shutter Island. The books are great — well-written, solidly plotted, with a keen sense of place and an unequalled ear for the particular dialogue of Boston, where they are set. They are not ordinary mystery novels that set a problem and then solve it, restoring order to the world. Instead, they take place on the mean streets that Raymond Chandler talks about in his Simple Art of Murder, where murder, drugs, rape, and betrayal are the norm. These novels are the new noir, where all the options hurt. The protagonists, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, are themselves Chandler’s detectives: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
Gone, Baby, Gone opens with the disappearance of 4-year-old Amanda McCready. Kenzie and Gennaro are called in by the girl’s aunt, against the advice of the police, who don’t want interference in their all-out manhunt. Kenzie and Gennaro, who have lived in these rough Boston neighborhoods all their lives, gradually discover that nothing (nothing!) is what it seems: the bereaved mother is a drug addict and mule, the police are shady, the family is hiding secrets, and even the detectives themselves are willing to go to terrible lengths they never suspected themselves capable of.
I admit I wasn’t expecting much of the film. The book was so subtle, so good at evoking the ambiguity of the human condition, and American film is usually terrible at that. Lehane is a master at showing us a person who is capable of terrible, despicable acts and yet is worthy of pity and capable of change. I was skeptical that this could possibly come across in the film. I was also nervous that the filmmakers might provide a happy ending, to satisfy filmgoers. Yet the work of Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, and Ed Harris was brilliant. The film was dark, as befitted its material, but it had its moments of wry humor. It was filmed in local Boston streets and bars, and the accents were authentic. The acting was superb, and the ending had me awake, thinking through the implications, in the middle of the night. This is no neat and tidy thriller, tied up with a satin bow, but a complex film worth watching.