Shutter Island

by Dennis Lehane

Published by William Morrow

336 pages, 2003

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Island of No Return

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone


Water has long been represented in literature as a positive force of nature, a source of rebirth and change. But to Edward "Teddy" Daniels, the troubled U.S. marshal at the center of Dennis Lehane's second standalone novel, Shutter Island, water is as dangerous as acid. Early on in this story we're told that when Teddy's fisherman father took him out on his boat for the first time, the still patches of water caused the boy to throw up "violently, pitching black ropes of it" into the sea. Water, in Teddy's migraine-induced dreams, is a cruel instrument of death, and the heavy rains at the midpoint of Lehane's novel cause considerable physical and psychic damage. In Shutter Island, what should be nourishing is not--and what appears to be reality is not, either. This is a book replete with deceptions. Trust me on that.

The rocky isle from which Lehane takes his title is supposedly one of four located immediately outside the busy harbor of Boston, Massachusetts. Teddy Daniels grew up a boat ride's distance away, then went on to fight honorably in World War II before becoming a marshal and being stationed in his hometown. Now, in 1954, he's sent back out to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of murderess Rachel Solando. She was an inmate and patient at Ashecliffe Hospital, a federal penal institution for the criminally insane, housed in a Civil War-era former barracks on the island. Accompanying Daniels on this assignment is his new partner, Chuck Aule, a likable guy with an engaging intellect, but also some troubling baggage: he was transferred to Boston from Seattle, because his prejudiced superiors didn't like the fact that Aule's significant other is a Japanese woman. Daniels thinks there is something strange about Aule. He has "delicate hands that seemed incongruous with the rest of him," Teddy muses, "as if he'd borrowed them until his real ones came back from the shop." Furthermore, Aule's manner seems unlike that of a regular marshal ("Chuck was a little slower with his weapon, fumbling with the holster snap"). But these initial observations are temporarily forgotten, as the partners set about trying to locate Solando on what appears to be an inescapable island.

Meanwhile, the reader can't help but worry for Teddy, surrounded by all that water.

As they gather evidence and decipher clues left behind by Solando, in her cell as well as at various points on the island, Daniels and Aule come to believe that the barefoot murderess hasn't gone far. She seems to be trying to send a message to anyone who is dogging her trail. Following an expected routine, the marshals speak with the hardworking staffers at Ashecliffe Hospital, all of whom appear to be accommodating, yet simultaneously withholding information--feeding the lawmen's doubts about this hospital's approach to psychiatric treatment. They also interview the "patients" who took group therapy with Solando on the day she disappeared--one of whom warns Teddy, cryptically, to "run." Clearly, there's something hidden and dangerous going on here, but Lehane doesn't reveal his hand quickly or without dramatic effect.

Shutter Island's sentence structure is gorgeous, and its prose frequently evocative ("The lights went on above them in a series of liquid cracks that sounded like bones breaking underwater"). You'd swear you can hear the seagulls and feel the roughness of the sea grass as Lehane describes it.

And the characterizations in these pages are no less richly developed. Teddy Daniels, a successful federal agent with a violent streak, comes across as brilliantly damaged goods, the equilibrium of his life having been thrown off by the tragic death of his wife, Dolores Chanal, who perished in an apartment house fire set by arsonist Andrew Laeddis. In some of his finest writing ever, Lehane portrays an endearing love between Teddy and Dolores:

And Teddy had leaned into the cab and spoken to her in whispers and what they talked about, even now, he couldn't bear to recount even to himself. Because it was pure. It was the purest he'd ever felt.

He'd stood on the sidewalk as the cab pulled away, and the memory of her face just an inch from his--through the cab window, on the dance floor--nearly short-circuited his brain, almost drove her name and number right out of there.

He thought: so this is what it feels like to love. No logic to it--he barely knew her. But there it was just the same. He'd just met the woman he'd known, somehow since before he was born. The measure of every dream he'd never dared indulge.

Engaging too, in his own peculiar way, is Dr. Joseph Cawley, the medical director of Ashecliffe Hospital and a former medical prodigy ("My IQ is off the charts, and ever since I was a boy, I could read people"). He was the one responsible for Rachel Solando's mental care. Yet it seems he could use some care, himself. Virtually skeletal, "thin to the point of emaciation," Cawley's wasting away reflects the futility he feels in trying to help his patients by way of "talk therapy," which he champions. The doctor is admirably opposed to what was then, in the mid '50s, the standard practice of surgery as mental care (think lobotomy). Those were the days before psychotic drugs were fully developed and prescribed, and pharmaceuticals came into widespread use. Cawley focuses instead on trying to free the mind from the mental anguish it keeps locked within--anguish that can have debilitating effects on his patients. It's admirable enough work; however, Cawley comes across as suspicious and somewhat unethical, if only because he seems to be analyzing Daniels and Aule, rather than merely cooperating with their investigation.

Given such odd behavior, plus that earlier warning from the mental patient, another man might think it best to get off Shutter Island post haste, if not faster. But Teddy Daniels' agenda extends beyond simply finding a hospital escapee. He's discovered that his wife's killer, Andrew Laeddis, is also a patient (or should that be "prisoner"?) at Ashecliffe, housed in the tightly guarded and most mysterious Ward C. And the marshal intends to do away with him, although he states quite the opposite at one point. Surprisingly, Chuck Aule proposes to be Teddy's ally in this murderous mission, despite the fact that he's a sworn federal agent, and hunt-and-destroy is definitely not part of their brief. But, as Aule insists with disgust, "fuck the marshals."

If things weren't already strange enough in Shutter Island, they turn decidedly so at this point in Lehane's yarn. On top of all the other tensions, a hurricane is approaching the island at a rapid clip, and ferry service to the mainland has to shut down, trapping everyone. Then, the elusive Rachel Solando is found, suddenly bringing Daniels' investigation to an apparent close. Or does this just invite a significant and bizarre turning point? In a novel so dependent on twists and deception, the innocence of every event is in doubt. After interviewing the flirty escapee, Daniels suffers a debilitating migraine, and accepts medication from Cawley that makes the reader cringe with fear that he is being drugged. Soon after, the storm arrives with a fury, knocking down walls on the isle, ripping off house roofs and causing major flooding. Waking from his medicinal slumber, Teddy's mind begins to cascade out of control. He suddenly finds Aule suspicious ("What exactly did he know about Chuck?"), and his pain for Dolores Chanal becomes overwhelming.

The nightmare that is Teddy Daniels' life begins to reveal itself, though in unexpected ways. After his fruitless search for arsonist Laeddis in Ward C, followed by the disappearance of Chuck Aule, Marshal Daniels discovers that Cawley and Ashecliffe's warden have no intention of letting him leave the island ("If that man gets off this island, we'll be destroyed," says the warden, in one of his few appearances in the novel). Precisely what those men are afraid of, and what truths lie at the center of Shutter Island, aren't revealed until 45 pages from the end of this novel.

Boston-area author Lehane, who made a name for himself with a series of books featuring private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (Prayers for Rain) before turning to standalones (his Mystic River was a 2001 best-seller), is a virtuoso talent. Yet Shutter Island doesn't display his skills at their best. Some of this novel's visual effects seem borrowed from other fictional sources. Consider, for instance, the storm that wrecks havoc on the island, knocks out the power generators and renders the electrical fences around the hospital compound dead. While there are no dinosaurs to come trouping in afterward, this particular plot development is nonetheless oddly familiar. A grand experiment on which Dr. Cawley has been working (and which would be a major spoiler were I to reveal it here) echoes a 1950s B-movie-style plot involving isolated islands and dubious science gone awry. And the medicine practiced in these pages leaves a great deal to be desired. Misguided fantasies are indulged beyond the point of reason or reality, and only serve to point out, in sobering fashion, that psychiatry was even more dismal in the era before psychopharmacology.

The driving tempo of this novel seems to evaporate by the end, like the calm after a storm. Lehane drops plenty of clues for his readers, as he leads them toward significant shifts of direction and perspective. However, the big twist on which Lehane's tale ultimately turns is more likely to incite a shrug than a shock. What was once pertinent and compelling is turned into a type of parlor-trick emptiness. Like the mental patients being treated on Shutter Island, this story veers sharply from reality, offering truth without the opportunity for healing.

There's a book somewhere in the psychotic composition of Shutter Island--one more substantial than illusions and misdirection. If only we'd been given the chance to read it, instead. | August 2003


Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.