GUEST REVIEW BY CLAIRE HOOPER
“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement.” So opens Dennis Lehane’s masterpiece of noir crime, Live by Night, a novel that features all of the classic features of the genre, including bank robbery, mobsters, speakeasies, murder and jail time, and which continues in this dramatic style as Joe’s history and the path that led him to his meeting with Emma Gould and finally to this unhappy ending are revealed.
Live by Night
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane is a classic gangster novel set during the Prohibition era, in which the author enables a member of the Coughlin family he first introduced to readers in his earlier novel, The Given Day, to follow in his own footsteps by leaving Boston for Florida. Lehane traveled south to attend university, and has more recently been attached to Eckerd College as writer-in-residence, but his protagonist makes the move for less academic reasons.
Joe Coughlin was a minor character in The Given Day, which focused on his older brother and their cruel, distant father, who is a major figure in the Boston police force. Joe comes into his own in this book. He has become an appealing character, partly as a result of the sympathy generated by his mistreatment at the hands of his father, who at one point encourages police officers to beat his son after he is taken into custody, but also because of his own philosophy. Joe sees himself as an outlaw, living outside of any established set of conventions, and it is when he is living up to this philosophy that he is at his best as a character.
From Outlaw to Crime Boss
The early parts of the book begin in Boston, where Joe comes into conflict not just with his police captain father, but also with a local gangster, Albert White, whose speakeasy Joe robs, and whose girlfriend, Emma, he steals after they meet during the stickup. He ends up in prison, where he finds a mentor in fellow inmate, Maso Pescatore, who grooms Joe to take control of his bootlegging operations in Florida.
Upon his release, Joe heads down to the eclectic Ybor City, where he sinks into an even darker lifestyle fighting with rival gangs for control of the trafficking routes through Tampa, and clawing his way to the top through his failure to respect the way things are done by the local gangs. Joe sees himself as unrestricted by the laws and conventions of either the police or the gangsters, and this enables him to team up with some Cuban suppliers and build an empire supplying alcohol to most of the Gulf Coast.
As we know from the very first line, this success will not last forever, and in fact, it helps to lead to his downfall. Joe feels that it has deprived him of his outlaw status, and worries that he is beginning to “live by day” and becoming one of the rule-makers, leading his rivals to start seeing him as turning soft as he undergoes the somewhat convenient mid-life redemption crisis, that leads back to that striking opening scene.
A Master of Crime
Live by Night is clearly the work of an author who has mastered the genre and who knows how to keep his readers’ attention, although it is Lehane’s precise prose that really sets his work apart and gained this book the Gold prize for fiction in the 2012 Florida Book Awards. Many of his phrases and chapter headings are just as striking as the opening sentence, and there are some stunningly evocative images, such as the description of lightning carving “jagged white veins in the skin of the world.” Although the main character seems rather undermotivated at times, this is perhaps symptomatic of the ennui of the era in which the story is set and the effects of a life surrounded by alcohol, addiction and crime. Lehane carefully reveals the complex structure of the criminal underworld, while also showing a sensitivity to the impact it has on individual characters, through the breakdown of families and disconnection with society that is so often indicative of alcohol abuse.
This world of Prohibition smuggling is one that Lehane adapts to easily as an author, perhaps because of his previous work as a television writer, dealing not just with this era, as part of the writing team for Boardwalk Empire, but also with other forms of addiction and drug crime, writing for The Wire and his new film project based on the Silk Road online black market. It is easy to see parallels between the characters and situations in Live by Night and modern crime stories revolving around drug trafficking.
Lehane’s previous experience as a screenwriter is also apparent in the cinematic quality of his writing, which fits very well with the crime genre, particularly in the dramatic action scenes that keep the pace moving and contain plenty of violence and plotting to satisfy aficionados of the crime genre. This visual style probably helped ensure that Live by Night was picked up by Warner Brothers for development as a film even before it had been released as a book, but readers may be more interested to know that Lehane plans to write a third book in the series, based around the Coughlin family.
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