Dennis Lehane: The writer who makes crime pay

Child abuse, murder, mental illness, marital breakdown: it's all grist to the mill for Dennis Lehane. And the literary thriller writer has plenty to get off his chest about the welfare system, bankers and 'postmodern jerk-offs' too

Meeting Dennis Lehane at his elegant London hotel, it is hard to imagine him being anything other than an international bestselling writer. Dressed in what might be called bohemian wise-guy chic, he begins by describing his current globe-trotting itinerary with admirable nonchalance. Flew from LA to Dublin for book signing. Hopped over to England. Star turn at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, interview, meetings with British publisher and agent, then appearance at the British Film Institute. Tomorrow: Madrid, then home to Boston.

It's all in a few days' work for the 46-year-old novelist whose books Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone and The Given Day are loved by readers and critics alike. Many have been adapted for cinema by some of Hollywood's biggest names, including Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Ben Affleck. Lehane joined their ranks in 2004, writing for HBO's The Wire – for some, the finest television series in living memory.

In conversation, Lehane exudes the same cool but pugnacious charm as his books. Here's Lehane on how fatherhood (he has a two-year-old daughter) inspired his most recent novel, last year's Moonlight Mile: "[The book reflected] all the fears you have as a new parent. It hits you like a tidal wave. You are immediately a hunter-gatherer. It's truly atavistic. The moment you have a child, as a male, you're like: I have to go out and kill a boar then get back to the cave and make some money."

Lehane's forthright sense of humour makes you laugh. At the same time, I wouldn't want to cross him. He gives good rant, never more so than when dissecting the recent economic collapse: "We all know who caused this crisis: investment bankers, stock brokers, mortgage companies. It was completely predatory. Fuck the world. And what happened to them? Absolutely nothing. All the banks did after we bailed them out was kick their fees up, give $45m bonuses to top executives. And who do we blame? Public-service workers, unions and taxes." Lehane pauses for breath. "I don't know what to say about that. When you get the populace voting against its interests to that degree, the bankers have won."

The more Lehane talks, the more complex and nuanced his story becomes. Like many of the characters in his books, he is not an easy man to pin down, occupying different worlds at the same time. Like fellow graduates of The Wire, George Pelecanos and Richard Price, is he a popular novelist with literary ambitions, or a literary novelist with populist ones? Mystic River was both a brilliantly plotted thriller and a state-of-the-nation address: among the base matter that Lehane transformed into narrative gold was child abuse, murder, mental illness, marital breakdown, vigilantism, urban poverty and inner-city gentrification.

So, Lehane jokes about selling out one minute ("Fuck it. I want to make some money"), then talks earnestly about literature as a force for moral good the next: "I can do so much at a social level," he says of his fiction. "This is where the social novel went. It went into crime fiction."

Indeed, it seems characteristic that he answers the question of what drives his writing with the phrase "irreconcilable phenomena". A typical Lehane hero, or anti-hero, strives to make good decisions where none seems to exist. In Mystic River, Dave Boyle is asked, at gunpoint, to confess to murdering his best friend's daughter in order to save his skin. In Shutter Island, Teddy Daniels investigates a case which exposes horrific events from his own past. In Gone Baby Gone, Patrick Kenzie uncovers a plot to kidnap a young girl from her mother. Only this mother is a drug-addicted nightmare, and these kidnappers are offering her daughter a better life. "I'm fascinated by irreconcilable dilemmas at a dramatic level," says the author. "For instance, I'm very pro-union. In The Given Day, I ask whether you'd want a police department to be allowed to go on strike. Yes but no. No but yes."

Lehane himself is equally hard to pin down. Discussing his family background, he is careful to say that he is not "working-class" but the "son of working-class". His best work stares unflinchingly at America's present, yet he returns time and time again to his roots.

Born in 1965, Lehane grew up in Dorchester, a working-class district of Boston populated mainly by Irish immigrants. His parents had emigrated to escape poverty in rural Ireland and chase the American dream – or, rather, an Irish-American one. "They loved America, but worked hard to bring their own culture over," Lehane explains. "I grew up in 1970s Dorchester, but when I walked through the door of my home it was 1940s Ireland. You could practically smell the peat on the fire."

Lehane's father was a shipping-and-receiving supervisor at a Sears department store. His mother raised her five children (four sons and a daughter), of whom Dennis is the youngest, but "rejoined the workforce after we got a little poor", working in a cafeteria serving Boston's public schools.

It wasn't until years later that Lehane realised how fortunate his upbringing had been. "I won the parental lottery. Most of the kids I grew up with either came from really fractured homes, or really violent ones. I went home to a very traditional, good Irish Catholic family. Not a huggy-feely, 'Oh son tell us your problems' type of vibe. But I was very clearly loved, very clearly protected. Things were expected of me. Nobody in my family can ever remember being without a job. It was the one crime. Friends of mine dropped out and no one gave a shit."

A strong moral foundation was necessary in Dorchester, the neighbourhood that eventually inspired Lehane's first novels. Today, he says, more than 70 per cent of the murders in Boston happen in Dorchester and its surrounding neighbourhoods, Roxbury and Mattapan. During Lehane's childhood, it was simply a "rough town going through a rough time", ravaged by crime, violence, poverty and the erosion of Boston's public schools.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, writing was not promoted as a "viable career" in the Lehane household. "My parents came from a world where you got the straight job. Get in with the state, get in with the utilities. My oldest brother followed that path and is already retired. My father said to him, 'You did it right.'" It doesn't always work out, of course. Lehane's sister became a nurse. "After 30 years, she got 'downsized' recently. Right at the end. Over-qualified, over-paid. Fired."

But while a career in the creative arts was not exactly encouraged in his family, neither was it discouraged: Lehane's brother, Gerry, is an admired stage actor in New York. Indeed, Lehane says, the blame for his story-telling tendencies lies squarely with his extended and extensive Irish-American family. At eight years old, he accompanied his father into Boston's pubs after the Saturday farmers' market. Lehane remembers vividly listening to the guys spin tall tales. "Every Friday and Saturday night we would go to the relatives. They would sit around and tell the same stories, with small variations. It was like jazz – a game to make the story better. You would think, I've heard this before, only with a different punch line. And they were always singing. That was its own form of storytelling."

The first member of his immediate family to go to college, Lehane dropped out twice. He tried his hand at teaching and journalism, but, he says, "I could not sublimate my own ego in the way a good journalist does. A good journalist disappears. Not me." He finally accepted that his writing bug had not cleared up, and began a creative writing masters degree in Florida. "The best thing that can happen to people entering creative professions is the dwindling of all other possibilities. You realise you just suck at everything else."

Having fallen "crazy in love" with Raymond Carver, Lehane began by writing rather literary short stories. "I was faking it. I was a Don DeLillo knock-off. DeLillo is a genius. I'm a knock-off. Screw that. What I grew tired of was the story about the vaguely dissatisfied in Connecticut. Who gives a shit? Richard Yates wrote that masterpiece [Revolutionary Road] 50 years ago. Get over it. Move on."

An avid reader of pulp fiction since an uncle allowed him to watch Jimmy Cagney movies on television, Lehane fell under the spell of a new breed of American crime writer who had no qualms about fusing high and low art forms. Initially, it was the three Jameses – Crumley, Ellroy and Lee Burke. "They said, 'Why do we have to be embarrassed by this? All we have to do is take everything that goes into great literature and put it into genre.' The Last Good Kiss, the LA Quartet, Black Cherry Blues are friggin' masterpieces."

If one book changed Lehane's life, however, it was Clockers, Richard Price's visceral account of drug dealers in New Jersey. "Clockers was pooh-poohed by the literary establishment as there are police officers in it and, really, black people. Nobody was writing about crack. It was all still postmodernist jerk-off material about people having affairs with their students. You want a portrait of America? It's Clockers."

If Dorchester gave Lehane the setting for his writing, and Clockers the form, it was his work in "human services" that injected the raw emotion and social conscience that elevate his novels above the norm. Lehane had paid his way through college by working in group homes with mentally handicapped children and adults. "The reason they hire a lot of young men is you get beat up a lot. Non-verbal kids express dissatisfaction by lashing out. I got the shit kicked out of me. I figured out that one summer I got beat up, like, 40 times."

Lehane was then offered a job counselling abused children. One case stands out: of an orphaned boy whose parents were killed in a car crash when he was one. "These religious fanatics had adopted him because they wanted his twin sister. They always hated him. His religious fanatic cunt of a mother used to put a .357 Magnum to his head when he disobeyed and say, 'Would you like to meet Jesus?'" Cast adrift in the welfare system, the boy was raped and brutalised. "By the time we got him, he was bouncing off walls. He was eight years old." Lehane later heard that at 17 he stabbed a cab driver and was sent to prison. "The cards were so stacked against him. If he had been raised in different circumstances, he would be a lawyer now or playing professional sports. That's where my rage came from."

Lehane wrote his first novel, A Drink Before the War, at college in 1990. It was eventually published in 1994. Two years later, he left his day job to write full-time. "I had a two-room apartment, a piece-of-shit car. I was living the dream, man." By 1998, he had made enough money to buy a house. This was funded by the "Kenzie-Gennaro" series of books about the private-eye duo, whose fourth installment, Gone Baby Gone, was filmed by Ben Affleck. The books sum up a central tension in Lehane's work between entertainment and realism.

"The assumption of the private-eye novel [about its protagonists] – that they have fights and solve crimes – is ridiculous. Private eyes don't that. They sit outside court rooms waiting to testify in insurance cases." Lehane's solution was to make everything else as banal as possible. "I'll do crazy – car chases and serial killers. Shit, I had three serial killers in one book. But I'll make Patrick [Kenzie] and Angie [Gennaro] as realistic as possible. They'll have money and marital troubles. They drink and smoke too much. They are unfinished, like most people are."

After five books, the formula was showing signs of wear. It was George Pelecanos who noticed that the word "tired" recurred through the then-final installment, Prayers for Rain. "I tried to write part six and couldn't," Lehane says. "That's what led me to write Mystic River."

The epic story of three Irish-American friends (Jimmy Marcus, Dave Boyle and Sean Devine) growing up in Boston, Mystic River elevated Lehane into the major leagues: the Clint Eastwood-directed movie was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. Lehane should have been ecstatic, but his life was falling apart. I mention rumours that success had gone to his head. "I got a little rattled by expectation," he admits. "But the truth is that my marriage [to the lawyer Sheila Lawn] blew up at the same time. It was just so devastating that it kept me completely grounded. It wasn't success that killed my marriage; it was a bad marriage."

Lehane now interprets Mystic River as a study of relationships in crisis. "The ultimate conclusion, which is really cynical, is that the one successful marriage is between the two evil people [Jimmy and Annabeth Marcus]. They've got each other's back. The most loving marriage – between Dave and Celeste Boyle – is the one that's destroyed."

The literary self-examination continued through his next book, Shutter Island. On the surface, it was a tricksy piece of Gothic sensationalism about a cop investigating melodramatic happenings at mental asylum. Underneath was Lehane's most personal story. "I was cast adrift, trying to figure everything out. Shutter Island is about a guy cracking up and trying to find out if there's any ability to believe in love again. All I wanted was my life back."

It took Lehane five years to recover – the length of time he needed to write The Given Day, his most ambitious project to date: an epic historical novel set in Boston at the end of the First World War. The long grind of writing and research was lightened by his three stints on The Wire. "I was God on The Given Day, and God had bitten off way more than he could chew. It was this massive world, and I had to populate every friggin' inch of it. It was like being a contractor. I had to do everything, from the foundations to the sub-flooring to hanging the dry walls. At The Wire all I had to do was paint a room. You're pink, you're blue. Here's the paint can."

Arguably Lehane's most famous contribution was the sudden and undignified murder of Omar Little, The Wire's maverick gangster. "Apparently that annoyed Obama," Lehane says with a degree of pride. The President was not alone. At the premiere of the third season, Michael Kenneth Williams, who played Omar, introduced Lehane to his mother. "There's this tiny little lady. She looks up at me and says, 'Don't you kill my boy.' I said, 'Don't you worry Mrs Williams, I won't.' Two years later, David Simon said, 'You're going to kill Omar.' That's the face that popped into my head – Michael Williams' mother."

Lehane was still a year from completing The Given Day when he met Dr Angela Bernardo, the Florida-based optometrist who became his second wife. Lehane now spends much of his time in Florida with Bernardo and their daughter. He is, he says, happy at last. "You can just see in everything that I wrote from that moment on that I'm in a healthy relationship for the first time in my life."

Future projects include a television script with Pelecanos called The Fence, and a follow-up to The Given Day. "It's a gangster story. I've been waiting to do one since I was eight years old." Lehane's publishers arrive. He shakes my hand, stands up, and promptly knocks over the metal table with a thunderous crash. It feels like a very Dennis Lehane moment – smooth and messy in equal measure.

As he said minutes earlier: "The world does not have tidy endings. The world does not have neat connections. It is not filled with epiphanies that work perfectly at the moment that you need them. Narrative becomes the way you make sense of chaos. That's how you focus the world. It's the only reason you should ever try this writing job."

'Moonlight Mile' is out now in paperback, published by Abacus, priced £7.99

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