With books like Mystic River and Shutter Island to his credit, Dennis Lehane has a very good track record, and Live by Night is up there with his best work. Talk about grabbing the reader’s attention: this is how the book opens:
Some years later, in a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement.
This image worries at the reader’s mind while the rest of Coughlin’s story unfolds.
The scene jumps back to Boston in the 1920s and follows Coughlin, the son of a senior police officer but a dedicated outlaw from an early age, through his relationships with the organised crime bosses who run the city – the people who live by night.
For a good part of the book, the main theme is the toughening of Coughlin. Intelligent but reckless, he violates not only the written rules of civil society but the unwritten ones of the criminal milieu.
The long section describing his period in the brutal Charlestown penitentiary is one of the best such accounts I’ve ever read. For the depiction of a corrupt institution serving a corrupt social and political order it is the equal of The Shawshank Redemption, the movie based on Stephen King’s novella (Rita Haywood and Shawshank Redemption).
Bullets fly in the streets and shanks sink into flesh in the prison and kill or be killed is the only workable credo. But the violence is framed by a human concerns – Coughlin’s obsession with a woman, trouble with his father, divided loyalties within his chosen occupation – with all the characters vibrant and real.
Lehane’s research into the workings of society in the Prohibition era has been thorough but sits lightly. His descriptions are both neat and dramatic:
People needed jobs and they needed shelter and they needed hope. When none of these proved forthcoming they settled for a drink.
Coughlin moves to Florida where he becomes a bootlegger and fully-fledged gangster while retaining a tentative grip on an ambivalent moral code. Another love interest develops as Coughlin builds his organisation in the face of opposition from the Ku Klux Klan, rogue criminals and a kind of moral rearmament movement led by a white-clad, charismatic woman who bears a resemblance to the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
Real characters appear or are referred to – Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Fulgencio Batista – but they are incidental and the book does not rely on them for verisimilitude. In fact the fictional political developments, the violent incidents and the physical descriptions feel so real you’re tempted to Google to confirm their authenticity.
For growing self-knowledge Coughlin rivals the depiction of Michael Corleone in the Coppola Godfather movies. He reflects, ‘…every time you sold off a piece of yourself in the interest of expediency it got easier.’ For the evocation of an era and a location the book reminded me of the Boardwalk Empire television series. Those comparisons are compliments.
I read Live by Night as an e-book where it’s easy to skip with the touch of a button. I didn’t, not once.
Dennis Lehane Live by Night, Little, Brown, 2012, PB, 416pp, $29.99
If you would like to buy this book from Better Read Than Dead at 10% discount, click here.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library click here.