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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.

“You really don’t remember, do you?” Margaret asked, as he was leaving. She looked wistful. “I’ve always wondered if you don’t listen to begin with, or if you listen and then forget because whatever it is doesn’t interest you. I suppose it amounts to the same thing. You know your mind.” She said this without the chill Uncas might have expected. There was a kind of resigned wonder. As though she were used to it, but it still puzzled her after all these years.

I remember the first time I was invited to a faculty party. It was an odd experience. After four years of college on some level I still saw my professors as teachers. The near parental authority I had assigned to them they had no interest in though. They were looking at a class of undergraduates, most of whom went on to further study and seeing future peers, perhaps even rivals. It was a distinction that was entirely lost on me. I got my degree and then emigrated to Scotland looking for work. It was only in later years when I met some of those same professors at social functions that I realized the formal relationship I had imagined was just that – entirely imaginary.

Uncas Metcalf is the opposite of what I have described as a professor. An overly formal man who corrects everyone’s grammar before he can stop himself, even complete strangers, or mild acquaintances. Even his own children he views as curiously intransigent students, who have not taken his lessons to heart.

Of his three children he has a particularly troubled relationship with his daughter Fauna, who has moved back to the neighbourhood with her husband and family looking for work in the small college town of Sparta. Uncas has difficulty understanding what to him seem like wild mood swings and an unusual sense of humour. His wife Margaret and he enjoy quiet, inoffensive banter, conducting themselves through catchphrases and Jimmy Durante quotes that have grown old with them.

Then one day Uncas discovers his bicycle has been stolen. Putting it down to a local prank he tries to put the incident out of his mind, certain it will eventually reappear. Bewildered by the experience he wanders into a bagel shop and meets the daughter of a friend, Hanna. In his confusion he decides to buy a bag of bagels from his grandchildren. Then he receives a call that Margaret had an accident at a book sale and injured her leg.

The Metcalf family has to reorganise itself to provide proper care and attention to Margaret during her convalescence. She, however, insists that things should proceed as normal, even planning the annual family Christmas party. Uncas on a whim employs Hanna and her close friend Alex, whom he out of propriety insists on calling Alexandra, to care for his wife during the day. In Alex he finds a kindred soul of sorts. Both of them seem to regret a life not lived to the full, disappointed in romance and lacking confidence.

Then Uncas’s bicycle reappears in a children’s playground. Alex accompanies him to collect it, only to discover a threatening note attached. Someone from his past stole his bike to get his attention. Uncas becomes increasingly alarmed as he realizes he is being followed. His pursuer knows him very well. Uncas unfortunately knows no one having long ago retreated from the society of humans into his study of botany. His relationships with his family and colleagues are based on habit, ritual. Alex is the first person to actually cause him to speak his mind. He fears it is already too late after a lifetime of saying nothing.

The playfulness of Uncas and Margaret hides an emptiness in their marriage that unbeknownst to him, his children are aware of. Why else would Fauna place a more sinister spin on her mother’s nickname for him – “Lord Reticent Taciturn”. What is admirable about Osborne’s book is its quiet assurance, the slow building of tension within small town Sparta, the intrigues and jealousies of college society that appear so dry later in life.

The comical moral rectitude of Uncas, that spans from how one conducts their personal life to correct grammar disguises a life not lived, an embittered perspective on life masked with a genteel smile. Set in the 80s, Uncas for example has a really hard time with the slang word ‘sucked’.

Sad, bittersweet and tender, a very nice surprise. It was not what I was expecting.

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