Thursday, March 3, 2016

Location, Location, Location: Dennis Lehane's Journey From Boston to Brooklyn & Back

I had the pleasure of meeting J.L. Abramo a few months ago when we read together at N@B-Denver. He read from his latest novel, Brooklyn Justice, and good news, folks, it's finally out from Down & Out Books this week. I wrote earlier this week about the importance of location in the first couple seasons of True Detective and I thought why not make a theme out of locale for the week? I asked J.L. for a guest spot and he delivered this on the work of Dennis Lehane. Give it a gander and then check out Abramo's body of work.

Location Location Location: Dennis Lehane’s Journey from Boston to Brooklyn and Back
by J.L. Abramo

Most of what I know about Boston, Massachusetts—and everything I know about Dorchester—I have learned from Dennis Lehane.  Like Loren Estleman’s Detroit, George Pelecanos’ Washington D.C., James Ellroy’s Los Angeles, and Charles Dickens’ London—Lehane’s setting, his home town, is as compelling a voice as that of any of his characters.

I first came across Lehane’s work at Mercer Street Books in Manhattan in the late nineties—a well-worn paperback copy of A Drink Before The War. It was his first published novel, a Shamus Award winner, introduced Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, and shouted working class Boston from nearly every page.

The fourth book in the series, Gone Baby Gone, was made into a film directed by another Boston son, Ben Affleck. Again, in the novel and in the film, the setting was an integral part of the action. When asked in a New York Times interview which adaptation of his work he most favored, Lehane said:

It’s a bit like choosing between your children, but I’ve got a real fondness for “Gone Baby Gone.” Ben Affleck understood the material in an organic way because he’d grown up here. He picked the majority of his locations not just from Dorchester, where I grew up, but from the very parish where I lived.

I grew up in a Brooklyn where you were defined by the neighborhood you came from—Gravesend, Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Dyker Park, Midwood.  In Lehane’s world, differences in background and experience could differ from parish to parish, the Catholic school you attended, who your parish priest happened to be, what your father did for work. And in his work, Lehane can be that specific when writing Boston, Dorchester and the local parish.

Other films have been made based on Lehane’s work—most notably Mystic River and Shutter IslandMystic River, novel and film, again feature South Boston as a very worthy antagonist.  Shutter Island, particularly the film, is a departure which I could talk about for hours—some other time. But it is the story of The Drop, the only film adaptation penned by Lehane himself, and the novel of the same name which followed it, that I find most intriguing with regard to the significance of setting in Lehane’s work.

Boston Noir was an anthology edited by Lehane and published by Akashic Noir in 2009.  Lehane suggests in his introduction that noir represents working class tragedy—that noir is a genre of men and women unable to roll with the changing times, so the changing times instead roll over them.  Animal Rescue, Lehane’s contribution to the anthology, is a perfect example—and once again the setting, Dorchester, is a key element in the narrative.

When I saw the film The Drop, I was unaware until the closing credits that it was based on the Lehane short story, Animal Rescue.  The film was set in Brooklyn, a Brooklyn this Gravesend native could feel and taste—Lehane nailed it.

I had always seen a little of Brooklyn in Lehane’s Boston—as I had seen a little of Brooklyn in a small film set in Philadelphia called Rocky. Working class Irish and Italian-Americans in large east coast cities have striking resemblances.

What intrigued me, however, was how a short story set in Dorchester became a film set in Brooklyn and later a novel set once again in Boston.

Lehane satisfied much of my curiosity in a 2014 interview in conjunction with the opening of The Drop.

Lehane said he had stayed away from adapting his own work—he likened it to a surgeon operating on his own child.  However, he saw expanding a short story as a different exercise—so he agreed to adapt Animal Rescue.

Before it became a short story, Animal Rescue had been part of a full-length work that failed to come together.  Lehane shelved it in 2002.  So, he explains, some of the characters from that work were floating around waiting to pop in.

According to Lehane, the producers felt Boston was somewhat played out in recent crime films—Mystic River, The Departed, The Town.  Lehane responded: Okay, just give me another world that is similar where I can set it.  Brooklyn was suggested. He investigated various neighborhoods in Brooklyn and decided, This will work, no problem.

The first word of the short story Animal Rescue is 'Dorchester'. The film, The Drop, is unmistakably set in Brooklyn. In the novel, The Drop, which followed on the heels of the film, the words Boston, Dorchester, and parish never appear—but we know, without question, that Lehane has brought his story back home.  To the place that surely inspired him—if not forced him—to write.

J. L. Abramo was born in the seaside paradise of Brooklyn, New York on Raymond Chandler's fifty-ninth birthday. Abramo is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel; the subsequent Jake Diamond novels Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity, and Circling the Runway; Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series; and the stand-alone, thriller Gravesend. Abramo’s latest work is Brooklyn Justice.

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