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A Few Impressions

Revelation in ‘Mystic River’

Let's talk about Dennis Lehane.

Image by Courtney Nicholas

Let's talk about Dennis Lehane. The 48-year-old author from Boston is the master of the narrative of repressed secrets. The revelation of these secrets often coincide with the uncovering of the facts behind the murder plots in his stories. In books like A Drink Before the War, Shutter Island and Mystic River, the murder mysteries give the story movement, while the hidden traumas of the characters bubble up to the surface.


In Mystic River, my favourite Dennis Lehane book and subsequent film adaptation, the revelation of past trauma operates in lockstep with the uncovering of the killer of Jimmy Marcum’s daughter. A dynamic between the three male protagonists – Jimmy, Dave and Sean – is established at the very beginning of the story.

In the prologue, Jimmy and Sean watch as a pair of child molesters abduct Dave. He eventually escapes his kidnappers but understandably carries the trauma of that event, albeit suppressed, into adulthood.

The foundation of the plot is two acts of violence: the prologue’s abduction of a teenage Dave by two child molesters disguised in police uniforms, and the murder of Jimmy’s daughter in the opening of the main section. These events shape the characteristics of the three protagonists as they grow into adulthood.

In the first instance of trauma, Dave is the victim, while Sean and Jimmy are the witnesses. After four days of sexual abuse at the hands of his captors, Dave escapes but is never able to come to terms with his ordeal. As he grows older, he becomes more introverted while simultaneously attempting to self-heal and appear normal. Sean and Jimmy, however, deal with the distress by absorbing it and letting it define their livelihoods: Sean joins the police force and Jimmy turns to crime.

After the second traumatic event, the murder of Jimmy’s daughter, the roles of the three childhood friends are rotated. Jimmy, the father of the murdered girl, becomes a victim. Sean, the cop, becomes a seeker of justice. And Dave, who coincidently kills a man on the same night that Jimmy’s daughter is killed, becomes a suspect. The fact that Dave randomly stumbles upon a man who appears to be having sex with a child in a parked car and beats him to death at approximately the same time Jimmy’s daughter is mudered is logistically a bit of a stretch, but it once again serves as a device to show how traumas experienced in the past can largely define one’s future.

The first traumatic act fuels the three men’s reactions to the second – reactions that largely seem beyond their control. Sean needs to solve the case because he needs closure. He is back in his hometown, uncovering everything from his youth that he left behind in an attempt to rectify his past. Dave’s past trauma isn’t triggered by the death of Jimmy’s daughter as much as it is by the man he killed; his repressed feelings about his own abductors pushed him into a murderous rage. Like Dave, Jimmy has done his best to walk away from his past. The former criminal has become a respectable community staple. The murder of his daughter causes Jimmy to regress and his criminal tendencies emerge. He has convinced himself that Dave is responsible for his daughter’s death, taking the law into his own hands as he kills his old friend and dumps his body into the river.

All laid out in front of you, the story feels very insular, unrealistically coincidental and too pat. But somehow Dennis manages to configure it into something magical and largely believable. He is one of the few modern authors capable of bending the reality of the present in order to excavate the power of the past.

Previously -  J. D. Salinger's War