Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane

Harper, 2004, 400 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-73186-X

(Experienced as an abridged audio book, read by David Strathairn) Harper Audio, 6 hours (abridgment approved by the author): ISBN 0-06-055417-7

I have always been dubious about audio books. Why waste X number of hours listening to someone reading a book when you can spend even less time reading the perfectly serviceable paper original? Given my speed of reading, my dislike for abridgements and my right to flip forward or backward whenever I like, audio books always come up short when compared to the real thing.

But what happens when you can’t read? Faced with the prospect of at least a week of reading downtime following an impending laser eye surgery, I decided to use audio books as a lifeboat, a way of keeping sane at a time where I wouldn’t even be able to see properly. My first selection was Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island: I could use a good crime thriller as an easy “read”, and I thought I knew what to expect after Lehane’s Mystic River.


The setup for Shutter Island is immediately familiar. It’s 1954 and Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall, is on a boat headed from Boston to Shutter Island, an isolated strip of land with a lighthouse and an insane asylum. Daniels and his partner are there to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a murderous inmate who somehow managed to slip away from her cell. But as the investigation evolves, things aren’t as they appear on Shutter Island: Things don’t match, people lie, strange clues accumulate and Daniels begins to suspect that there’s a lot more to the story than just a missing patient. What’s more, it all seems to involve him.

The days following an operation involving painkillers are, so put it nicely, not entirely rational. Your first impulse is to sleep, and so you pass the next day or two in bed, slipping in and out of slumber. Now add to that a paranoid thriller in which Dennis Lehane does M. Night Shyamalan and you’ve got a recipe for one seriously weird “reading” experience.

I usually speed-read thrillers at a pace of nearly two hundred pages per hour, so being restricted to a narrator’s cadence can be both maddening and revelatory. Lehane can write, that’s for sure: His turns of phrase and the way he sets up his scenes are interesting, and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of the prose had I ended up reading the book the traditional way. On the other hand, things can get a bit too long. Six hours to listen to a book I’d read in 120-150 minutes? In most circumstances, I’d say no thanks.

It’s made even worse by the lop-sided way the plotting is handled. After a fantastic build-up, the Big Twist is revealed at around the end of the third cassette, leaving one more cassette to go. That last cassette is spent listening to the intricacies of The Twist, even as we readers don’t need to be convinced. Then, just as you think all is wrapping up, there’s another fifteen minutes of needless flashback as Lehane laboriously explains the real story, a real story that we readers didn’t need to be told after all of the clues left throughout the novel. This may be an area where the abridgment may be at fault (It’s possible that the last quarter of the novel was left untouched), but I doubt it: It’s likely that Lehane, as a rational mystery writer, is ill-equipped to handle twists best suited to fantastical stories.

But even with this problem, Shutter Island is a fine paranoid thriller, with enough buildup to hold the reader’s interest throughout. Definitely not the same thing as Mystic River, but that’s not a problem.

As far as the audio book is concerned, I truly enjoyed David Strahairn’s narration: He manages to give distinctive intonations to most characters, up to a point where you wonder why they didn’t simply give in and make this a radio play. While being oddly pleased by the experience, I’m sticking to my original opinion: While audio books are better than no books at all, they’re no replacement for the real thing.

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