When is an author building appropriate back story for his characters, and when is he just going off on random tangents?
I thought about this question a lot while reading Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane. Some of his books have been among my favorites, particularly Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, so I was pleased to discover there was a stand-alone I hadn’t yet read.
The first half of the book—maybe more than half—is dedicated to a meandering examination of the life and internal workings of Rachel Childs. Her beginnings are typical for smart and broken children—a difficult mother, an absent father, a lot of pressure to be perfect but on someone else’s terms. Most of this part of the book focuses on Rachel’s obsessive and ongoing quest to find out her father’s identity. Her mother refuses to tell her, and then dies; she tries hiring a private detective but the pickings are so slim that even he refuses to charge her for what little he can discover; and every clue seemingly leads to a dead end.
The book maintained my interest throughout this quest, but only because it said interesting things about Rachel herself. Then it takes a segué into career and family, as she develops her abilities as an on-air news reporter and, under the tuition of her new husband Sebastian, a producer and mentor, becomes known for reporting on dangerous situations in marginalized societies. This career leads to a crisis that triggers anxiety attacks and agoraphobia.
At this point Brian Delacroix, the private detective she hired to look into her father’s identity, comes back into her life. She realizes there was always a spark between them and begins to explore a relationship, and at that point I thought, Was the entire first half of the book only a build-up to get us to this pairing?
After this transition, the book’s purpose turns yet again, and becomes a Hitchcockian thriller with a secret. The first half of the book doesn’t telegraph this in any way, so the subsequent events are quite disconcerting, particularly when Rachel rather abruptly goes from a passive to an active player and turns into someone you’re not sure you believe was “in there” all this time. So if you can suspend disbelief enough to see the entire book as a character study of Rachel, then it works as a whole. If you are unable to do so, it falls apart into separate, interesting, but not necessarily well integrated parts that seem like they belong in at least two different books.
I always enjoy Lehane’s writing style—he reminds me of some of the classic mystery/thriller writers I read when younger, such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. But while this book held my attention throughout, I couldn’t recommend it unreservedly to people looking for one of Lehane’s trademark psychological thrillers. There was both too much and too little to sustain a specific mood, and I focused more on the transitions than on the tale.