Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Review of Live by Night by Dennis Lehane (2012, Abacus)

The mid 1920s and Joe Coughlin, the son of a deputy superintendent in the Boston police, has been running wild since he was thirteen with his friends Dion and Paolo.  Still in their teens, they hold up a speakeasy owned by local Irish mafia boss, Albert White.  During the raid, Joe meets Emma Gould, White’s mistress, and vows to get to know her better.  A few days later he tracks her down and they start an affair.  Stealing cash from White is a bad idea, stealing his girl is suicidal.  Joe’s plan is for one last robbery, then to run off with Emma.  Instead, he ends up in prison, where as the son of a cop, he’s highly vulnerable.  His strategy is to do whatever it takes to survive and he’s soon on the path to becoming a made-man.  On release he’s asked to run Albert White, who’s moved to Tampa, out of town and to build up the Italian Mob’s rum-making operation.  Joe would like to think that he’s an outlaw, but he knows he’s become a gangster, someone who lives by night, outside of the rules of the day.  He also knows that he’s now the boss in an enterprise that specialises in violence, double-crossing and greed, and that to survive and prosper he needs to be ruthless and committed and to jettison his innate compassion.

Most crime stories take place over the course of a few days or weeks.  Live by Night is much more ambitious in its scope, following the life of Joe Coughlin from small time crook to feared gangster boss over a ten year period, tracing his ups and downs, and exploring themes of family, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, love, compassion, and violence.  Despite the fact that Coughlin’s life is full of incident, Lehane manages to pack an awful lot into 500 pages without ever rushing or skimping on detail.  Indeed, a real strength of the book is how he manages to deal with the temporal shifts across years and incidents to create a smooth overarching narrative that always keeps the reader engaged. It took me a little bit of time to warm to Coughlin and the story, but the story soon becomes compelling.  And whilst there are plenty of twists and turns, the plot is coherent and does not rely on coincidence or plot devices, and does not get sidetracked with subplots.  The characterisation is well penned, especially Coughlin, who develops and matures over time, his friend Dion, Graciela, Albert White and Maso, who are all alive on the page and have back stories, and even the minor characters have some depth.  Throughout there’s a good sense of time (prohibition period), place (Boston, Tampa and Cuba) and social context (race, politics, crime).  If you’re looking for a 1920/30s gangster story with some heart and depth, or a crime story that is expansive in scope, then Live by Night will be just your ticket. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your review, Rob. I have some doubts about this book. I had read a couple of dissenting reviews. Now Im decided to read it.

Ray Kolb said...

Glad you liked the novel, Rob. I enjoyed it and it was nice to see Lehane back in good form. His best book since Mystic River, I thought.