By Art Taylor
Friday, November 26, 2010; 7:44 PM
By Dennis Lehane
Morrow. 324 pp. $26.99
Dennis Lehane's 1998 novel "Gone, Baby, Gone" (and the smart 2007 film adaptation) saw private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro tackling the disappearance of 4-year-old Amanda McCready. By the end of the case, the mystery had been solved, but few would call the resolution satisfying, least of all the investigators themselves. The case pitted legality against morality, and ultimately left Patrick and Angie at loggerheads. At the opening of Lehane's fifth Kenzie-Gennaro book, "Prayers for Rain" (1999), the two had parted ways, and though "Moonlight Mile" - the first book in this series in more than a decade - finds them happily together again and with a 4-year-old of their own, domestic harmony exists in part because no one mentions that old case anymore.
No one, that is, until the past rears its ugly head in a 3 a.m. phone call: "You owe me," a voice tells Patrick, and old debts prove pretty steep indeed. Amanda has gone missing again, it seems, and he is called on to find her once more - and do it right this time.
His first instinct is to leave the case alone. Right or wrong, he'd done what he needed to do back then. He has a new job on the horizon and a family to consider. And he already sees new troubles brewing between him and Angie in the call's wake: "Since we'd reconciled, we hadn't said the names Amanda or Helene McCready in our home until three days ago. In those three days, every time one of us mentioned one of those names, it felt like someone had pulled the pin from a grenade."
But at the same time, Patrick's recent casework has left him making more distasteful compromises about right and wrong, and Amanda's disappearance offers a chance at closure, perhaps even redemption. That Patrick and Angie have a daughter of their own - the same age Amanda was in that earlier case - adds poignancy but also ups the stakes. As Angie asks Patrick, "When your daughter asks what you stand for, don't you want to be able to answer her?"
The search for Amanda leads to surprising places, and dark ones as well: fraud, identity theft, drugs, kidnapping, the black market, murder. As with "Gone, Baby, Gone," questions about parenting persist: What makes a person fit or unfit for parenting? How far would a good person go to protect a child? And what does "good" mean, anyway?
Throughout, Lehane's writing mixes the streetwise and the lyrical. One mobster "posted first-quarter NBA numbers on the Breathalyzer." Another's eyes were "a liquid sapphire and reminded me of a candle flame slipping under the surface of melting wax." Elsewhere, an extended metaphor aches with confusion and loss - not just the core characters' but that of a larger community, perhaps America itself: "We no longer understood how we'd gotten here. We couldn't grasp what had happened to us. We woke up one day and all the streets signs had been stolen, all the navigation systems had shorted out. The car had no gas, the living room had no furniture, the imprint in the bed beside us had been smoothed over."
In the decade between the last Kenzie-Gennaro book and this one, Lehane has made quantum leaps as a craftsman: His breakthrough novel, "Mystic River," encompassed myriad perspectives and ultimately approached the level of Greek tragedy, and "The Given Day," an epic history of early 20th-century Boston, revealed a writer brimming with even greater ambitions. In returning to his old private eye series now, Lehane has narrowed his scope a little: The social commentary is less nuanced, more direct, and plot twists are more prominent than deep moral predicaments. Still, "Moonlight Mile" should hardly be considered a step back. Instead, Lehane is a writer bringing new confidence and an easy prowess to a new chapter in an epic story - the Kenzie-Gennaro saga.
Taylor reviews mysteries and thrillers frequently for The Post.