A review of Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard.”
Thus opens Live by Night. It is 1926, years before this flash-forward. Joe is 20. Though his father, Thomas, is a senior police commander, Joe has been a practicing criminal since the age of 13, and he’s very good at it. He’s also easy to like. The novel follows him from his days as a small-time crook through his involvement in first one Boston gang, then another, to his rise as the crime boss of the Gulf Coast answering only to “the boys” (Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky) in New York. The action shifts from Boston to Tampa to Havana, dwelling on his involvement with an engaging young prostitute named Emma Gould to his marriage later in life to a brilliant and beautiful Afro-Cuban woman named Graciela. The story is written with a sure hand: action-packed, full of surprise shifts and revelations, and populated with credible characters, including not just the bosses but the spear-carriers, too.
In The Given Day; Gone, Baby, Gone; and Shutter Island, the literary phenomenon Dennis Lehane laid bare the dark underbelly of Boston society, peopling his novels with complex and conflicted characters and finding the good in bad people and the bad in good. Live by Night, his recent, Edgar Award-winning novel, picks up the tale of the talented Coughlin clan where The Given Day left them, following son Joe, who featured in the earlier tale as a young boy.
Live by Night is crowded with smart, thoughtful gangsters with whom Joe finds himself on the losing side more than once despite his obvious intelligence. Joe is tested in more ways than one, struggling with his Catholic upbringing as he rejects the existence of God and Heaven (“You didn’t die and go to a better place; this was the better place because you weren’t dead.”) and pondering whether he can be certain of anything except his own, elusive certainty. “Things weren’t ever what they were supposed to be; they were what they were, and that was the simple truth of it, a truth that didn’t change just because you wanted it to.”
The title of this superior crime story is shorthand for the environment in which Joe and his counterparts carry out their trade. As Emma tells him, “We’re not God’s children, we’re not fairy-tale people in a book about true love. We live by night and dance fast so the grass can’t grow under our feet. That’s our creed.”