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Mad As Hell

Psychiatric high jinks on an island of lost souls.

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Shutter Island

By Dennis Lehane

Morrow, 325 pp., $25.95

Dennis Lehane hit it big in 2001 with his Boston whodunit Mystic River. From river then to harbor now -- one of Boston's outer-harbor islands -- Shutter Island is another whodunit but with an emphasis not on the who but on the it, "it" being what may or may not be driving U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels to the breaking point or back from the madhouse.

The setting for this implausible, confusing, but calculated-to-please page-turner is the comfortingly named Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The dates: four days in the summer of 1954. The purpose of Daniels' visit: to locate Rachel Solando, a prisoner, er, patient at Ashecliffe who went nuts and drowned her three kids and still is nuts and just escaped her cell, er, hospital room. The weather those four days in '54: lousy; in fact, a hurricane mid-stream this story practically tears the whole place apart, a perfect, overobvious objective correlative. What's worse, Daniels has been through his own wringers before even setting foot on the island: an extraviolent career as an "alpha male" fighter and code-breaker in World War II (where he once helped gun down 500 or so SS guards at a liberated concentration camp and where his extraordinary code-breaking skills once failed him, which cost the U.S. half a battalion); a big drinking problem to go with his workaholism after he returned from the war; and a crazy wife (maybe) he adored but who died from smoke inhalation after an arsonist set fire to the couple's apartment building. All this on top of an early history of seasickness coupled with migraines and you have yourself a protagonist suffering from unresolved Catholic guilt but surviving through more than his fair share of raw deals. Maybe. Daniels' fellow marshall on the case of Rachel the missing psychotic is Chuck Aule. Again, you guessed it, maybe.

The doctors in charge of Ashecliffe at least aren't nuts, sort of. They're psychiatrists on the cutting edge, each with his own means of treatment but each with a methodological ax to grind: John Cawley, who's still in favor of the talking cure, even for his most violent paranoid schizophrenics; Jeremiah Naehring, who's carrying on in the grand spirit of Third Reich-inspired surgical experiments (transorbital lobotomy, anyone?); and Lester Sheehan, who's arguing a first-ditch effort against the brand-new science of psychopharmaceuticals, which he's afraid will some day reduce everybody to happy-go-lucky pill-poppers. (His technical term for the process: "zombiefication.") Or are the real culprits here the HUAC, LSD, and the CIA? And does any of this even begin to make sense?

Can't tell. Reading this book but halfway daydreaming through most of it, then skimming it a second time and being no nearer to figuring out its intricate design, I'll take it on faith this author knows what he's doing. And maybe an audience of thrill-seekers used to having rugs pulled out from under them, alert to red herrings and plot reversals, knows too and can have its fun, maybe. Two things I do know: Mystic River the movie is "soon to be a major motion picture," according to Lehane's publisher, due out this fall, and Shutter Island, the "major motion picture," is already slated to be directed by Wolfgang Petersen of The Perfect Storm. Good. Dennis Lehane knows exactly what he's doing after all, and moviegoers can look forward to a damn-good hurricane.

Calls for Submissions

The deadline for this year's Memphis magazine fiction contest is August 1st. Authors must live within a 150-mile radius of Memphis, and stories should be 3,000-5,000 words. Authors are allowed multiple submissions, but each requires an entry fee of $10. The winning author will receive $1,000 plus publication of the story in a future issue of the magazine. If entries warrant, two honorable mentions will be awarded $500 each. Stories should be mailed -- no faxes, no e-mails -- to Fiction Contest, c/o Memphis magazine, P.O. Box 1738, Memphis 38101. For further information and rules, go to MemphisMagazine.com or call Marilyn Sadler at 521-9000, ext. 451 (sadler@memphismagazine.com). Winners will be contacted in mid- to late September.

The deadline for the Best of Memphis Anthology contest, sponsored by the Memphis Writers Co-op and designed to showcase the best in area writing, is also August 1st. Whether it's literary fiction or poetry, science fiction, historical fiction, horror, or fantasy, the co-op welcomes all. Authors, however, must live within a 100-mile radius of the city, and submissions must have an obvious link to Memphis or to some historical, current, or future location within the residency area. For fees and further guidelines, go to http://tog.20m.com/anthology.htm or send an SASE to Memphis Writers Co-op Anthology, 3125 S. Mendenhall, PMB 353, Memphis 38115. Selected authors will be notified by October 15th.

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