Dennis Lehane takes the wheel of Stephen King’s ‘Mercedes’ and has a blast

Dennis Lehane
Gaby Gerster/Diogenes, Zuric
Dennis Lehane

It’s been a banner year for crime fiction kingpin Dennis Lehane.

In May, the Dorchester native — best known for “Gone, Baby, Gone” and “Shutter Island” — released “Since We Fell,” his 12th novel, to strong reviews as well as a film deal with DreamWorks, for whom Lehane has already spun his book into a script.

Moving between mediums is nothing new for the author, who’s scripted episodes of “The Wire” in addition to the 2014 crime drama “The Drop” (based on his own short story). And if you’re curious as to why this summer’s “Mr. Mercedes,” about a retired detective chasing a demented serial killer, may hold an unusual grit and gristle in its familiar cat-and-mouse setup, look no further than the Audience Network drama’s writing room, where Lehane occupied a well-worn seat at the table.


As that series, based on a Stephen King novel, unspools its first season of 10 episodes — including four scripted by Lehane — the author spoke to the Globe by phone about the adaptation process and why tackling TV and writing a novel are two very different animals.

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Q. With “Mr. Mercedes,” you’re adapting not only someone else’s work but a Stephen King novel. History tells us that’s no easy task. How was working on the series for you?

A. It was great. It was so cool. This was one of those projects where I couldn’t believe I was getting paid, because it was just so fun. Not just to adapt something Stephen King wrote, which is a hell of an honor, but [to adapt] something that I feel spoke to my wheelhouse in a lot of ways with the world in which it’s set.

Q. Could you expand on that?

A. Sure. I feel like he was writing very much about a discarded America, the America that got run over by globalization and the switch from a manufacturing economy to a consumer-based economy. The book is set in a particular time period, and the book’s inciting incident is set very clearly post-2008 in old-town America, where a bunch of job seekers are run over by a foreign automobile. I don’t think you have to reach too far to figure out what those metaphors are.


Q. Did you enjoy writing any characters more than others?

A. [Detective Bill] Hodges was [in] my wheelhouse, completely. When we cast Brendan Gleeson, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to have a blast here.” I enjoyed writing Deborah Hartsfield [the abusive mother to serial killer Brady]. King has this moment in the book where he just goes boom, right into her backstory. It’s this very jarring, wonderful chapter opening; we see who she was and what her life was, and then this tragedy struck, and then a second tragedy struck, and then she was left financially destroyed, which is the theme the book keeps going back to. She becomes the Deb we meet, but it wasn’t like she was born that way. In the book, it’s backstory, which you can do as a novelist. I can’t do that as a writer of the show, but I could be like, “How can I show it?” And then I got to write that episode.

Q. On that note, both “Mr. Mercedes” and [the 2017 novel] “Since We Fell” find you writing complex, central female characters. That’s a shift from most of the thrillers for which you’re known. Did the change in perspective present any particular challenge?

A. It’s funny, because all through my writing days prior to publishing, the vast majority of my short stories were from a woman’s perspective. And then, once I started publishing, I was just doing males all the time, and it was like, “OK, whatever, I fell into this.” But then I wrote “Mystic River” and I got to do one of the point-of-view characters as a woman. I remember feeling like, “Wow, I missed this — this is liberating.” And then I forgot all about it, of course, until I went back to doing it again. I don’t overthink those things too much. I just know that when it feels right, when it feels natural, I just go with it. You spend so much time as a writer doing what I call banging on the box, desperately in search of catching the zeitgeist. When a character just comes to you that way, when you lock in, I just run with it.

Q. What specific difficulties are there in writing for TV?


A. It’s a visual medium. If I’ve learned anything over 10 years, since I started on “The Wire,” it’s that, to my core, the talkier the scene, usually the weaker it is.

‘This was one of those projects where I couldn’t believe I was getting paid, because it was just so fun. Not just to adapt something Stephen King wrote . . . but something that I feel spoke to my wheelhouse in a lot of ways.’

Q. How does the TV format compare to writing a novel?

A. Oh, it’s a completely different sense of ownership. The two aren’t even comparable. When you write a movie, you’re one of 150 people, at minimum, and your contribution is about as important as a great many other people’s — or less important. You turn in your script, it’s like a little template, and they do what they will with it. TV is a different sense of ownership, because you’re in the writer’s room, there’s a whole bunch of you, and the writer is respected in a different way. You can control a little bit more, to be honest. You still don’t control everything, but you have a little more agency. And that’s super fun. Then, when you write a book, you control everything. You’re God, period. Sometimes, it’s wonderful being God. Other times, it’s just way more moral responsibility than I want.

Q. What are you working on currently?

A. I’m doing a TV show [for FX] about New York in the 1980s, about the end of the Five Families and the rise of the Wall Street gangsters.

Q. One last question: Few crime writers are as linked with a city as you are with Boston. How did you respond to seeing last weekend’s counter-protests?

A. Couldn’t have been prouder. You don’t understand — I was traveling, and that was the front page of every newspaper. It was the lead feed of every channel on TV. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder to be a Bostonian.

Interview was edited and condensed. Isaac Feldberg can be reached at or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.