I’ve long considered Dennis Lehane to be one of the premiere commercial novelists of his generation. Recently, his The Given Day, concerning the Boston police strike of 1919, gave him top creds as a historical novelist as well. Live By Night is right up there with the best.
Joe Coughlin is the son of one of the principals in The Given Day. A higher up in the police department, and the book takes up not long after the strike. The title of Live By Night connects with Joe’s choice of lifestyle. The daytime game doesn’t appeal to him. No juice in it. He doesn’t want to call himself a gangster, which somehow connotes a stone cold murderer. He’s and outlaw. It’s a distinction that grows more and more meaningless as the tale draws on. He’s into small time racketeering–sticking up poker games, running protection rackets, stuff like that. Then he falls in love, which messes with his focus and causes his people to lose confidence, Then a bank robbery goes bad because someone ratted and three cops die (not at Joe’s hand, but he is there.) and Joe’s handed a 5-year prison sentence. Prison is, of course, a handy recruiting place for mobsters, and Joe quickly proves himself worthy of the attentions of one of the most powerful. He’s out in two years and sent t
o Tampa’s Ybor City to turn a faltering organization into a thriving one.
Getting in and out of prison, taking over Ybor, involves a lot of blood and betrayal. Joe proves up to it all, but he has a soft spot–a little guilt, a little regret, an occasional reluctance to pull the trigger. So Lehane gives us a mobster with a heart maybe not 24 karat, but at least gold plated. And that’s what makes this novel not pure noir, but noir with nuance. Ugly as his deeds
are, we like him. Maybe because the guys he rubs out are a little meaner than he his, or maybe because the collateral damage gives him pause. At any rate, we’re always pulling for him.
Joe’s brains and feeling lead him to some unexpected places, and you’ll find yourself looking behind the scenes at Cuban politics and Cuban/U.S. politics and Central American politics. Politics and crime, it seems, go hand in hand. Surprise.
Lehane’s usual fine language and deft storytelling turn this into more than just another wiseguys story. It’s a human story about a man who consciously chooses a life of crime and still exacts our sympathy on every page