Nothing is What it Seems in Massachusetts: Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane


Harper Torch, 2003

ISBN 038073186X (ISBN13: 9780380731862)

Part of the Mysteries from Every State challenge

shutterThis book is exactly what I love about mystery novels. I almost wish I hadn’t seen the movie before I read the book; no matter how much I love Leo, the movie did not do this story justice—in a big way.

Set in Ashecliffe hospital for the criminally insane on a deserted island, the novel, like the setting, makes the reader uneasy from the start. U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels and his new partner Chuck Aule have been assigned to the case of a missing patient, Rachel Solando. Solando has disappeared from her room, and there are no clues to her disappearance.

As Teddy and Chuck arrive on the island and begin to investigate the disappearance, they realize that there is something not quite right about Ashcliffe and the island itself. Shortly after their arrival, a hurricane blasts the island, and nobody can get out or communicate with the mainland, leaving Teddy and Chuck as trapped and helpless amid hints of human experimentation and government secrets surrounding the hospital and its doctors.

The island was creepy and the way Lehane tells the story makes the reader feel like they are themselves a patient. It is also the kind of novel that completely draws you in and then stays with you long after you’ve read it.

The characters are complex and unforgettable, my favorite being Chuck, with his quick humor and immense charm. All the characters have a deep and complicated history, entangled with what was going on in the U.S. at the time; Teddy is a World War II veteran with terrible memories of what he was forced to do and the human beings he was forced to kill; Chuck has an American-born Japanese girlfriend, through which Chuck is forced to experience the injustice of the anti-Japanese sentiment that permeated public opinion at the time.

The novel also discusses the state of psychiatry at the time, with the “old” and “new” schools battling for academic and practical supremacy- exemplifying the struggle between practitioners advocating physical treatments like brain surgery, shock therapy, etc., and those practitioners advocating the use of pharmaceuticals to treat the mentally ill. There are also very few proponents of “talk therapy,” but they all seemed resigned that the pharmaceutical approach would (and did) ultimately prevail. The issue of mental illness is one that is deeply explored and discussed in the book, and even though first published over a decade ago, some of the questions it poses are still relevant today.

Lehane weaves a masterful tale full of suspense and mystery, where nothing is what it seems and the reader is kept wondering what is really going on in AShecliffe and on Shutter Island.

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