“We will probably die young,” predicts Joe Coughlin, Boston-bred gangster and main character of “Live by Night.” In his 10th novel, prolific scribe of crime and mystery Dennis Lehane delivers a violent, hard-edged look at the inner workings and consequences of organized crime during Prohibition. This is a world of hard-hearted men and alluring women, moonshine and speakeasies, opulent wealth and moral privation. It is also fertile ground for literary exploration, and Lehane relentlessly drives the action forward as he rotates through robbery, blackmail, and murder by chapter. He makes an effort to weave an undercurrent of emotional development into this crime story, but come up slightly short. In the end, “Live by Night” is best read as an imaginative gangster drama, one where the heists and characters are as vivid and surprising as they come.
From the outset of the novel, Lehane establishes that he’s back in his familiar territory of Boston crime. Indeed, “Live by Night” serves as an informal sequel to his previous novel “The Given Day,” which focused on Joe’s brother Danny’s involvement in the 1919 Boston police strike. Danny barely qualifies as a secondary character in “Live by Night,” though—he’s moved out to Hollywood to make his fortune—and Lehane’s focus is firmly on Joe, the youngest son of a prominent police commissioner. After a lifetime of petty crime culminating in a dangerous bank robbery lands him in the Charleston Penitentiary, Joe aligns himself with Boston’s most dangerous crime boss-cum-rum-distributor. Lehane makes an uncharacteristic but ultimately enlivening decision to move the rest of the book’s action down to the Gulf of Mexico; in freeing himself from his traditional Boston locale, his exploration of crime and punishment in Tampa rings more violent and surprising than it has in a long time.
This change of locale invigorates his descriptions of the criminal underworld. Joe’s early life has a ring of sensationalism about it as he alternately ducks and swaggers through the burnished, corrupt Boston of the 1920s. “In Charlestown,” Lehane writes, “they brought .38s to the dinner table, used the barrels to stir their coffee.” Blood is spilled in obscene amounts at the Penitentiary, industry colors the sky and buildings a perpetual grey-brown palette, and the entire atmosphere reeks of claustrophobic suspicion. It’s almost as though Lehane has recognized the tropes inherent in his own works and amped them up at the novel’s outset, giving the reader the opportunity to beg for release. Are citizens really stirring their cream and caffeine with firearms? Does it matter? This is the Boston of stereotypical imagination. Lehane lets his narrative breathe when Joe hops a train to Tampa following his release, and his subsequent metamorphosis from an arrogant, skittish small-time outlaw to a commanding, shrewd boss is one of the greatest rewards the novel contains.
Tampa, at least as Lehane imagines it, is a city in which extremes of human behavior are believable. Nothing in Tampa—especially in Ybor City, the immigrant-filled neighborhood that Joe adopts as his headquarters—can be done small. Enemies are not just racist, they’re card-carrying members of the KKK; a bright-eyed girl that leaves town to try her luck in California doesn’t just return as a failed actress, but as a heroin addict and prostitute, too. Lehane’s portrayal of Tampa, in all its searing sunshine, trigger-happy drug cartels, and free-flowing booze, provides such a visceral image that it is a perfect stage against which the narrative can unfold.
While Lehane successfully masters the timbre of the city, his portrayal of Joe’s burgeoning emotional maturity leaves something to be desired. Joe starts off on a quest for vengeance after his girlfriend in Boston is murdered. Though he later finds love in Tampa, the sway both women hold over him is never fully explicated. Joe is willing to to lay his life on the line for those he loves, but this love is thinly developed and lacks the emotional depth to make this devotion credible.
In addition, Joe’s true motivation to pursue this high-stakes lifestyle may remain obscured for too long. “I’m not going to live some life where I pay my fucking taxes and fetch the boss a lemonade at the company picnic and buy life insurance,” Joe asserts at the beginning of the novel, but the origin of his beliefs are unclear. Immediate retribution for his lover’s murder is plausible in the short-term, but Lehane ultimately chooses to hint at rather than reveal Joe’s depth of character for a long time. By the time Joe engages in some long-awaited self-reflection—“The truth of himself,” he admits, “was a lonely boy in an empty house, waiting for someone to knock on his bedroom door and ask if he was okay”—it may be too little, too late. Nevertheless, Lehane’s decision to withhold a good deal of Joe’s heart and vulnerability for the last third of the novel is intriguing; this character shift, while not as compelling as his one to a crime boss, is undeniably more realistic and relatable.
“Live by Night” is ultimately a tale of the insane highs and stunning lows that men can ride out in their quest for immortality and recognition, and the final realization for one man that these ephemeral experiences pale compared to true love. “We live by night and dance fast so the grass can’t grow under our feet,” Joe is reminded at the end of the book, but through the subtle shift he has undergone throughout the novel, his rejection of this ideal is ultimately plausible. Lehane has always been good at detective stories, but it is his foray here into the changing morals of a criminal that flex his literary muscles. “Live by Night” is taut with a heart, and if that heart is still evolving, Lehane just might master it in his next novel.
—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.