Tag: Shutter Island

#BestsellerCode100 Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island from a Writer’s Perspective

Today I’m going to review Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island from a writer’s perspective,

Note:  This post contains spoilers.

Shutter Island: A Novel by Dennis Lehane.

When you’re reading a book as a writer rather than as a reader you tend to focus on the craft. For example, you may notice how the author handles dialogue, how he handles the scenes, or how he develops characters. This perspective can be like studying how magicians do their tricks, so be prepared for a glimpse at what goes on behind the curtain.

In the book we are using for our reading challenge, The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers discuss theme, plot, style, and character. To add more depth, for my analysis I chose to apply the categories from the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling from Writer’s Digest instead.

1. Characters

(Note:  If you are unfamiliar with the vocabulary I’m using below, the Helping Writers Become Authors website has a clear, concise summary of the character archetypes.)

On the surface the characters seem to follow the standard archetypes. The protagonist (main character) is U. S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, a likeable, but flawed man. He is filled with angst over the death of his wife Dolores, whom he loved deeply. Dolores could be best defined as the impact character, although ironically the woman the marshals are looking for, Rachel Solando, also fills that role.  His new partner, U.S. Marshal Chuck Aule, is the affable sidekick. The antagonist is played by Dr. Joseph Cawley, who is in charge of the facility for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. At the end of the book, however, the characters get thrown into a blender and it becomes less clear who is serving which role. For example, is Chuck Teddy’s sidekick or Dr. Cawley’s sidekick?

One way for a writer to establish character is through dialogue. Dennis Lehane is a master of dialogue. He excels at making each character sound unique. (Note:  at times he uses some pretty raw profanity to achieve this. Do you think this helped or hindered character development?)

Some ways to make dialogue authentic — more like real speech — include using contractions, sentence fragments, vocalized pauses (like “um”), and mixing up the length of the lines. Lehane does it all, plus he’s such a pro that he flies through dialogue without using a single “he said.”

(Teddy:) “You guys do that a lot?”
(Cawley:) “What’s that, Marshal?
“Sit around over drinks, and, um, probe people?”
“Occupational hazard, I guess. How many psychiatrists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“I don’t know. How many?”
“Oh, stop overanalyzing it.”

2. Setting (Scene Execution)

Because the title of the novel is a place, it’s reasonable to expect the setting to be important. In fact, the first paragraph of the prologue sets the stage. It is all about the island.

I haven’t laid eyes on the island in several years. The last time was from a friend’s boat that ventured into the outer harbor, and I could see it off in the distance, past the inner ring, shrouded in the summer haze, a careless smudge of paint against the sky.

Lehane’s descriptions of the setting are visceral.

3. Theme

The theme of a novel is the part that applies to the real world or what the novel means. You can describe the theme as the questions asked or lessons learned.

In Shutter Island, one of the chief themes is mental health. How fragile is the human psyche? Parallel to that theme is how love/marriage can be a minefield.

Another strong theme in the novel is that water is a dangerous force of nature. In one scene early in the book, young Teddy gets motion sickness when he’s out in his father’s boat, but all isn’t as it seems.

“…Teddy unable to tell his father that it wasn’t motion that had turned his stomach.
It was all that water. Stretched out around them until it was all that was left of the world. How Teddy believed that it could swallow the sky. “

Soon afterwards his father dies at sea. Water turns up again and again at crisis points in the story.

The Bestseller Code examines novels using topics rather than themes, probably because it is easier to define using a computer model. What is the difference between a theme and topic? A topic might be “dogs,” whereas the theme of a novel might be “dogs are loyal friends.”

The authors found that a writer who devotes up to a third of his or her book to only one or two topics is the most successful. It does make sense that too many topics might confuse and misdirect a reader. Lehane did a good job because he stuck to a few intense topics developed as themes.

4. Structure

Structure is the order of storytelling. In this case, the prologue starts in 1993. The first chapter bounces back to 1954 and the main story progresses more or less chronologically through a period of a few days, with short flashbacks to Teddy’s relationship with his wife Dolores.

In a famous essay by Elmore Leonard in the New York Times, he states a writer should avoid having prologues because they are annoying. In Shutter Island, the prologue is critical to understanding what comes after, but it’s so different in tone from the rest of the book that readers might be tempted to skip it.

Did you read the prologue? What is your opinion of prologues?


Whether or not you enjoyed the book as a reader, from a writer’s perspective Dennis Lehane did an excellent job crafting Shutter Island. A beginning writer could learn a lot from critically studying his work.




Currently we are hosting a challenge to read through the list of 100 best of the bestsellers recommended in The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. Shutter Island is number 100 on the list, and we started discussing it on November 7, 2016. Please feel free to join the conversation.


#BookBeginnings Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island

This week I discovered a fun book meme hosted at Rose City Reader called Book Beginnings on Fridays. The premise to share the first sentence or so of a book you are reading and your thoughts about it.



The book:

Shutter Island: A Novel by Dennis Lehane.

First paragraph:

I haven’t laid eyes on the island in several years. The last time was from a friend’s boat that ventured into the outer harbor, and I could see it off in the distance, past the inner ring, shrouded in the summer haze, a careless smudge of paint against the sky.

Shutter Island is about a U.S. Marshal and his partner who travel to a hospital for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of a female inmate. The hospital is located on the island the narrator describes. From the first paragraph, would you guess this book has been labeled as a psychological thriller? The description seems deceptively peaceful.

Thanks to Elizabeth at Silver’s Reviews for helping us discover Book Beginnings on Fridays.


Currently we are hosting a challenge to read through the list of 100 best of the bestsellers recommended in The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. Shutter Island is number 100 on the list, and we started discussing it on November 7, 2016. Please feel free to join the conversation.



#Bestseller Code100: Number 100 Shutter Island Review

This post contains spoilers about Shutter Island. Join the main discussion here.

Shutter Island: A Novel by Dennis Lehane


Shutter Island: A Novel, by Dennis Lehane, is #100 on the 100 Book List created by the computer model described in The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers (see Bestseller Code 100 post).  Host Roberta will be reviewing this book later from the writer’s perspective, but today I will review it from a reader’s perspective.

I’ll admit up front that this is not a book I would have picked off the shelf to read.  The cover graphics on the paperback are menacing and The New York Times review blurb begins with, “An eerie, startlingly original story…. A deft, suspenseful thriller….”  In fact, I’m glad I read it first on the Kindle so I didn’t see all that before I began reading.  I usually steer clear of psychological thrillers, having read far too many of them a few decades ago when I had young children.  I decided at the time that any book with the words “psychological” or “thriller” as a description was ultimately not good for my peace of mind.

That said, I really liked Shutter Island.  It sucked me in quickly and by the time I was halfway through, I couldn’t put it down.  Duties were neglected!

Teddy Daniels was a great character – strong, flawed, human.  I believed him. I believed in him.  And that made the twist towards the end all the more upsetting.  I didn’t want him to be an inmate!  He was the hero, the one who would escape the island and expose to the world the horrors occurring there.

Then Roberta pointed out in her post, The Narrator in Shutter Island, that Teddy was not the narrator of this story.  I had forgotten there was a Prologue!  I quickly went back and reread it.

Does the knowledge that Dr. Lester Sheehan is the narrator change the ending?  Probably not.  Either way Teddy/Andrew undergoes the lobotomy.  The only thing left unclear is if Teddy is really Andrew.  Or is Teddy actually the Marshall and he failed to escape the island.

What do you think?


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#BestsellerCode100 The Narrator in Shutter Island

This post contains spoilers about the narrator of Shutter Island. Join the main discussion here.

Shutter Island: A Novel by Dennis Lehane

Let me be right up front. I usually don’t like unreliable narrators. They aren’t so bad when you know right from the start the narrator isn’t reliable, for example like Rachel Watson in The Girl On The Train. But when the narrator seems reliable and is revealed to have been leading the reader astray only at the end of the book, I feel cheated. I want to shout at the author, “no fair!”

If that is the case, why didn’t I feel cheated by U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels? You have to admit that was a huge twist at the end and although there were hints, nothing was conclusive one way or another until the last part.

But who is the narrator?

I didn’t feel cheated by Teddy Daniels because he wasn’t the truly the narrator. Remember the prologue? Dr. Lester Sheehan aka Chuck Aule was the one writing the story. Lester fully admits his mind wasn’t what it once was. He is writing the story because “…its current storage facility…” (his mind) was beginning to “leak.”

What really happened at the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane? Was Teddy really an inmate who Lester tried to help with an unusual and risky treatment? Or was he really a Marshal who stumbled into a trap from which he couldn’t get away? Looking back on the prologue again, was Teddy the rat who had swum to the sand island from which there was no hope of escaping?

What do you think of the narrator in Shutter Island?



(Public domain photograph by PublicDomainPictures.net)


#BestsellerCode100: Number 100 Shutter Island

Are you ready to discuss Shutter Island, the 100th novel listed in The Bestseller Code (review) by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers ?

This post does not contain spoilers.  (Note:  Out of consideration to those who possibly haven’t read the book yet, please indicate right up front if your comment or review contains spoilers.)

Shutter Island: A Novel by Dennis Lehane



The year is 1954. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner Chuck Aule travel to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane on Shutter Island to find out what has happened to a woman who has mysteriously disappeared. As the investigation deepens, Daniels uncovers more questions than answers.

What do you think of this novel?

Join the discussion:

We’ve provided a number of ways for you to join in the discussion.

  • Add a comment to this post
  • Take our survey
  • Link your review (in the link form below)
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Update of recent posts discussing Shutter Island:

  1. Discussion of the narrator
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. First paragraph
  4. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective


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If you have reviewed Shutter Island, please feel free to add a link to your review here.

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As this is the first of the series, please excuse any bugs or glitches. Let us know if you have any problems or questions.

Do you have suggestions for ways to improve this reading challenge? We’d love to hear them.

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog.

The next book is number 99 on the list, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011) – Discussion begins November 21, 2016.

#BestsellerCode100: Where Do You Find Books?

Have you picked up the first book in the reading challenge, which is Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island: A Novel (Amazon affiliate link), yet?  If so, where did you find it?

A big advantage of reading this list is most of the books are popular enough that you can expect to find them fairly easily. Some you might have already on your shelves. But if not, where do you go?

Of course, there are the usual places:

  • Libraries
  • Bookstores
  • Online giants

We have some serious book lovers doing this challenge and I’ll bet you have found some great places to pick up books at reasonable prices.  Are you willing to share your secrets?

Where are your favorite places to pick up deals on books?



Public domain photo via Visualhunt.com

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