Schemes, suspense and psychosis are the order of the day on Lehane’s ‘Shutter Island’

January 17, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 17, 2013

Some men are born mad. Others have madness thrust upon them. The latter case is true of Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal dispatched in September 1954 to Shutter Island, the eponymous setting of Dennis Lehane’s fascinating 2003 psychological suspense novel.

Daniels is accompanied by a new partner, Chuck Aule. Their official mission on the remote Boston Harbor outpost, home to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, is to investigate the disappearance of an escaped patient. Despite his apparent loyalty to his senior partner, Aule’s ulterior goals aren’t entirely clear to the grizzled Daniels, a war veteran and experienced killer.

And while we gradually learn more and more about why Daniels’ eye has been trained on Ashecliffe long before the murderous patient absconded, his purpose on the island also remains mysterious to the reader — and ultimately, perhaps, even to Daniels himself.

My last true weekday post of 2012 was this review of Lehane’s The Given Day, a sprawling 2008 historical novel about one family and two men — one a scion, the other a servant — set in the aftermath of World War I. (The bulk of the book took place in Boston, which seems to be Lehane’s home turf.) Shutter Island is entirely a different beast, however. At 369 pages, it’s much shorter than The Given Day.

The 2003 book is also much more tightly focused in time and scope. Aside from flashbacks, virtually all of Shutter Island takes place on or very close to the watery outpost, whereas The Given Day had scenes set in Ohio, Kansas, Washington, D.C., and New York. Shutter Island’s main action, again excepting flashbacks, spans four days, not several months, and its cast of characters is significantly smaller than The Given Day’s.

The mystery that Daniels and Aule are officially investigating is the disappearance, evidently into thin air, of the delusional Rachel Solando, who drowned her children but acted as if the murders never happened.

The marshals quickly determine that key details aren’t adding up. While Solando might have been able to slip out her cell, her exiting the building would have required her walking past several attendants who swear they saw nothing. A staff gathering yields nothing to encourage the duo.

Teddy said, “Deputy Warden, you and your men searched the grounds?”

“Sure did.”

“And you found?”

McPherson stretched in his chair. “We found no evidence to suggest a woman in flight. No shreds of torn clothing, no footprints, no bent vegetation. The current was strong last night, the tide pushing in. A swim would have been out of the question.”

“But she could have tried.” This from the nurse, Kerry Marino, a slim woman with a bundle of red hair that she’d loosed from the pile atop her head and unclenched form another clip just about her vertebrae as soon as she’d walked into the room. Her cap sat in her lap, and she finger-combed her hair in a lazy way that suggested weariness but had every guy in the room sneaking glances at her, the way that weary finger-combing suggested the need for a bed.

McPherson said, “What was that?”

Marino’s fingers stopped moving through her hair and she dropped them to her lap.

“How do we know she didn’t try to swim, end up drowning instead?”

“She would have washed ashore by now.” Cawley [the psychiatrist] yawned into his fist. “That tide?”

Marino held up a hand as if to say, Oh, excuse me, boys, and said, “Just thought I’d bring it up.”

“And we appreciate it,” Cawley said. “Marshal, ask your questions, please. It’s been a long day.”

Teddy glanced at Chuck and Chuck gave him a small tilt of the eyes back. A missing woman with a history of violence at large on a small island and everyone seemed to just want to get to bed.

As the text on the back of my trade paperback copy of Shutter Island says, “nothing at Ashecliffe Hospital is remotely what it seems.” This is quite true; there are a number of twists, which I’ll avoid spoiling.

It’s fair to say, however, that that Daniels is a man who’s been warped by his World War II experiences and by the death of his beloved but ill wife. He’s also put under intense strain by the staff and patients he is investigating, whose actions seem increasingly odd and suspicious.

Additional details might spoil the fun, so I’ll close with this. Shutter Island is a fine tale of psychological suspense, and I recommend it highly!

One Response to “Schemes, suspense and psychosis are the order of the day on Lehane’s ‘Shutter Island’”

  1. adem Says:

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    If you happen to be interested feel free to send me an e-mail.

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