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It was ten feet tall and topped with a single strip of wire, and something about the sight of the wire got to Teddy. He felt a sudden pity for all those people on the other side of the wall who recognized that thin wire for what it was, realized just how badly the world wanted to keep them in.

Dennis Lehane is my literary nemesis. I have never met the man, he never made a statement that insulted my god, countryman and/or parentage – but I have had occasion to be exasperated at the sight of his name in raised lettering.

You see as a Joe R. Lansdale fan the first thing I do whenever I visit a book store is gravitate to the ‘Fiction’, section of the shop and peruse the alphabetical listings of authors. Lehane and Lynda La Plante (I also bear her some irrational resentment) are usually present and accounted for, but never my favourite creator of good ol’ boy amateur detective novels. If ever you are passing the ‘L’, section and hear a long drawn out sigh – that is probably me.

Ashecliffe Hospital is the gothic setting for Shutter Island, a mental hospital situated on a bleak and isolated island, designed to treat some of the most violent mentally ill patients in the American psychiatric system. The story begins with the arrival of two Federal Marshals to the island in September of 1954. Teddy Daniels has been assigned to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a patient at the facility who reportedly vanished from her cell in the middle of the night. While he usually works alone, Teddy has been assigned a partner for this case, the gregarious and good-humoured Chuck Aule, a recent transfer from Seattle. Where Teddy is haunted by his past, Chuck is warm and charismatic. The two men bond despite their differences, both veterans of WWII, although Teddy is still traumatised by his war-time experiences, including the liberation of Dachau.

The two men are introduced the director of the facility, Dr. Cawley, who explains the circumstances of the case. Rachel Solando was delivered to her room by an attendant. There was another member of staff present in the hallway outside her room monitoring that evening. On the floor beneath a game of poker was being played by several of the attendants. There was nowhere in the room where she could have hidden and so when her cell was checked and she was not to be found, everyone from the attending staff up to the board of Ashecliffe are baffled as to what happened. However, one clue was left behind. A cryptic note written in code that refers to a ‘rule of four’. Teddy has some facility with code-breaking and sets to trying to decipher the meaning of this note, while he begins interrogating the staff and patients.

The two marshals are convinced that this is an inside job, but they have no way of proving it. Slowly Teddy becomes convinced that something much larger than a simple missing persons case lies behind his being called to the island. After all while no one can give him any insight into Solando’s vanishing, what little they can tell him is remarkably similar in wording. There are hints of radical surgery being performed in secret at the facility, perhaps within Ward C, which the two men are forbidden from entering. Dr. Cawley is effortlessly polite, but refuses to give Teddy access to any of the files belonging to patients, or staff. Then there are the headaches – crippling, numbing migraines that have begun to afflict Teddy with increasing intensity. Is there a cause for this affliction that is somehow connected with Ashecliffe? Teddy, however, has an ulterior motive for coming to the island. There is another patient here, someone he has been looking for for years. A man named Laeddis – the killer of his wife.

This is a dark and intensely paranoiac thriller, a rich concoction of grand guignol and ‘Reds under the Bed‘, era suspicion. Conspiracy theories are exchanged like conversational tidbits, psychiatry is regarded with fear for its desire to fix the human mind as one would a car engine. Lehane plays on these pulp fiction tropes to build the narrative to an explosive finale.

If I had a complaint it would be that the characters’ voices were for the most part indistinguishable. However, that is a moot point.

This is a book of taut and effective thrills, that will leave readers chilled. Well executed.

“Ah, you light-complexioned women are all sulky,” he said. “What do you want? Compliments and soft speeches? Well! I’m in good humour this morning. Consider the compliments paid, and the speeches said.” Men little know, when they say hard things to us, how well we remember them, and how much harm they do us.

According to Matthew Sweet’s introduction both William Thackeray and British Prime Minister William Gladstone read this book in a day. So it seems I am in good company. However, it appears I have been labouring under a misunderstanding about this book. I always assumed it was a ghost story, thanks to a little known film starring Lukas Haas with a similar title, whereas in fact it is a pseudo-gothic tale of family intrigue and fraud.

The book’s preface contains a note stating that this is a new kind of tale, one were the action is to be related to us by its own characters. Published in serial form by Charles Dickens in the 1860s, this was considered a unique feature at the time. Collins proves to be adept with this new narrative form. [The characters] are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take the chain up in turn and carry it on to the end. The reader is left to question the truth of the events as they unfold.

Shortly before assuming a well-paid position as a tutor at Limmeridge House, Cumberland, Walter Hartright has a startling encounter on a country road just outside of London. A woman dressed entirely in white seems to appear out of nowhere. She speaks in low darting sentences, seems confused and possessed by turbulent emotions. Muttering accusingly about a man of rank, a baron of some kind, she begs Walter’s assistance. He agrees to accompany her into the city environs, where she claims a close friend lives who will aid her in her distress. She forces him to promise not to detain her, or question her about her circumstances and just as suddenly as he had made her acquaintance, the mysterious woman in white departs, leaving him much bemused on the streets of London.

After arriving at Limmeridge, Walter assumes his post as tutor to the two young women of the house, Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. The head of the house is the louche dilettante Frederick Fairlie: art lover, insufferable snob and claiming to suffer from a multitude of ill-defined afflictions. As he memorably describes himself during a later passage in the novel, he is nothing but a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man”.

Having introduced us to our nominal cast of characters, we then meet the villain of the piece – Sir Glyde. A man of good repute, whom Walter quickly notes, is a baron. Could this be the man the woman in white was babbling about? For Walter has fallen in love with Laura Fairlie and Sir Glyde has been promised her hand in marriage. Broken-hearted, the young hero leaves Limmeridge on an exploratory trip to Honduras. His part in the adventures that follow is not ended yet, though the telling of the tale passes from him.

Collins has both main actors and bit-part players address us during the proceedings. The story is told through the device of diary extracts, legal testimonies and signed confessions, an increasingly familiar device through the latter-half of the 19th century. Collins had a background in both art (hence Hartright’s role as an art teacher) and law, which explains the fraught legal dilemma that Laura quickly finds herself in. Strangely when Walter assumes the role of narrator, his heroic aspect transforms the two sisters into self-admonishing weak-willed women. Yet when Marian, distraught at the fraudulent marriage her sister becomes enmeshed in, steps to the fore, she is revealed to be a canny and determined heroine. She meets her match, however, in the conniving Italian Count, a friend to Sir Glyde, who uses charm and guile to entrap Laura’s estate.

Only the mysterious woman in white knows ‘The Secret’ to defeat the conspiracy that traps the sisters in their own homes, at the mercy of powerful men who with a word can strip them of their class and commit them to the asylum.

Madness and evasions of the word of the law haunt the proceedings, playing on fears of false incarceration. This is an effusively written, yet chilling, work of suspense.

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