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Author Dennis Lehane on crime novels, race in America and researching history

Oct 27, 2016

"Mystic River," "Shutter Island," and coming in December, “Live By Night” are just some of the major Hollywood films based on stories by Dennis Lehane.

After building a career as one of America’s most popular and most respected crime novelists, Lehane began writing widely acclaimed historical fiction. But he’s also built a parallel career in the worlds of television and film, including time as a writer for HBO’s “The Wire” and writing the screenplay for one of James Gandolfini’s final films, “The Drop.”

Lehane will be appearing at the Frauenthal Theater in Muskegon on Thursday, October 27 as part of the Muskegon Area Arts and Humanities Festival. He spoke to Michigan Radio's Doug Tribou.

Highlights from Doug's interview with Dennis Lehane

Doug Tribou: The public loves crime-detective-mystery genres, but occasionally I'll read or hear a review of a crime novel where the reviewer almost sounds surprised that he or she actually enjoyed the book. Do you think that the genre gets short shrift when it comes to reviews and credit and respect in the literary world?

Dennis Lehane: There was a major shift in sort of cultural and critical perception of crime fiction and you know, it was probably 10 years late, in my opinion, because the people who influenced the people who are getting the credit for sort of maybe raising the bar a little bit, they weren't given the credit that they deserve. But we all knew how great they were. The writers today who certainly aren't ghettoized -- I mean when you think of like Kate Atkinson or Tana French or finally James Lee Burke -- I think there's definitely a sense that it's a literary form that can hold its head high.

DT: You mention some of the pioneers -- or your predecessors -- in the crime genre. “The Drop” [starring James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy] reminds me of works by George V. Higgins, who wrote the “Friends of Eddie Coyle” and “Cogan’s Trade” in the ‘70s. Those stories, like yours in this case, have so much going on between the lines. The dialogue is about one thing, but it’s really about another. And James Gandolfini was in an adaption of “Cogan’s Trade” called “Killing Them Softly.” It’s clear that artists and writers are attracted to that kind of subtlety. Is it a harder sell in Hollywood – when there aren’t any bombs or aliens or explosions to turn it into big box-office numbers?

DL: It's a harder sell in some ways, but “The Drop” is a perfect example. There was never a moment during the making of “The Drop” at any stage where any of us thought, “Oh, we going to make a hundred million dollars.” It's not that type of movie. You bring up you know George V. Higgins … and “Killing Them Softly” is a good example. It was a very similar esthetic. We all are trying to do the films that we grew up on and that means the great films of the early 1970s, which is, I would say, is arguably the greatest decade in the history of film.

So, we're not trying to do superhero movies. We're trying to do “The French Connection.” We're trying to do Sidney Lumet. “Dog Day Afternoon.” “Serpico.” That's what we're interested in. So when we did “The Drop,” I remember feeling after the first screening, “Wow, we did the film we wanted to do and I don't think America wants to see it.” [laughs] Which was fine. And “The Drop” did respectable business and it's got a really wonderful life on cable right now. So, I'm just trying to do the best piece of work I can do. In terms of whether the public shows up or not, I could care less.

DT: Right from the start of your career with your first novel "A Drink Before the War," race played a big role in your writing. Racial issues between blacks and whites and whites and Latinos are also featured prominently in your historical fiction trilogy that begins with "The Given Day." What's changed about how you think about racial tensions in America in the 20-plus years since you wrote "A Drink Before the War"?

DL: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I think it's the issue of our time. I think it's the issue of the last hundred years. Probably my very earliest sort of socio-political thought as a kid, I remember this because I grew up in an extreme racial strife in Boston during the federal desegregation of the Boston Public Schools, and I remember thinking at one point when I was probably around 10 or 11, "Wow. It seems to be in the best interest of the people who have all the money to keep the people who don't fighting amongst themselves."

And I still believe that to this day and I'm not surprised by Ferguson and I'm not surprised that there's going to be more. Sooner or later, we have to have a very honest discussion on race and our policies of ghettoization. And I think that that's something that white America just does not want to look at.

DT: You were a writer for "The Wire," the acclaimed HBO series set in Baltimore. And the relationship between police and the black communities in the poor neighborhoods of that city are central to that series. Was your awareness of that tension part of what drew you to that show?

DL: What drew all of us is ... if you look at the writers on "The Wire," the ones who didn't come from TV, the novelists, we were all urban novelists that's how we define ourselves. I don't think of myself as a crime writer. I think of myself as an urban writer. And just because there tends to be a lot of crime in urban areas, well hey, there's something to write about. I'm interested in cities and how they work and how they don't work. And that's what led me to "The Wire."

As far as the relationship between police departments and poor and minority communities, I think it's very clear in all my books that I have great respect for police departments. We are sending these these men and women, every day, into a type of warfare. At the same time, look, how many cases of unarmed white people getting shot ... by police have we documented in this country? Because I bet the number's really low.

DT: “Live by Night” is the second book in your trilogy of historical fiction that centers on the Coughlins, a Boston family that produces some police officers and a very prominent gangster. Ben Affleck is starring in and directed the film version, which will have a limited release on Christmas Day and a wider release in January. Those three books cover basically the first half of the 20th century. That was a really turbulent period in American history, clearly, two world wars, Prohibition, the Depression. Is that a fun process for you to dig into that and get those details?

DL: Once the sort of foundational research is done then it just becomes really fun. For example, when I was writing “Live by Night,” I had a scene where I couldn’t have a character fly. If the character got on a plane, which was the easiest way to solve his problem, then it would it would make my life hell. So, I said, “All right. 1935. How many people were afraid of flying?” And I researched it and to get on a plane in 1935 would have been like someone saying to you, “Hey, you want to hop on the Space Shuttle?” I mean, people were terrified of it and for good reason. Planes were crashing all the time.

That led me to: “OK, great. Now I've got a reason this guy would have terrified because most people don't like fly back then.” And then I discovered that the first stewardesses were actually air nurses. That's what they were called … and their job was to deal with your air sickness and to keep you stable and keep you from having a panic attack and to give you gum because planes weren't pressurized. And all of that came from just two minutes of research and I was like, “That was just great!” 

DT: Readers of crime fiction are always looking for a new mystery. Are there any up and coming writers you're keeping an eye on who you think people should be reading?

DL: The way I put it is: one of my best buddies is a carpenter and he doesn't come home and work on his house. ... I'm always kind of amazed and in awe of my contemporaries that keep up with all the other stuff that's out there [and] who read nonstop. I'm like, "Man, where do you find the time?" And when I come in at the end of the day, you know, I've ... worked hard and then I get my kids down to bed and I've got like an hour. You know, it's like, "Oh, do I dive into a book that's very much like the thing I was just working on all day? Or oh look, SportsCenter."