Albert looked at him once. Looked at him in such a way that Joe thought, He know, he knows. He knows I robbed him. Knows I was his girl. He knows.
You've been waiting for this. When would the number one Dennis Lehane apologist in the online crime fiction community would review his last book?You had every reason to believe I'd do it on day one and yet I didn't. There's a reason for that. Despite having given fairly positive reviews to THE GIVEN DAY and MOONLIGHT MILE, aftertwo years of hindsight and bizarre Dennis Lehane interviews, it has dawned on me that I may have been a little too nice. THE GIVEN DAY is choking under the weight of its political history research and MOONLIGHT MILE wasn't half bad, but felt a little unnecessary. So I had my apprehension about LIVE BY NIGHT, which has for protagonist Joe Coughlin, the brother of Danny Coughlin, protagonist of THE GIVEN DAY. Plus, some critics has pointed out the excess of complacent historical research in LIVE BY NIGHT, so it's been a hot potato on top of my bookshelf for two months before I finally picked it up. I felt I owed Lehane to read it after the hours of cheap entertainment his books gave me. I was right to do so, because LIVE BY NIGHT marks the return to form for a great writer. Dennis Lehane is back and he has figured out that literaty/historical thing.
Unlike his brother Danny, Joe Coughlin has decided to live on the wrong side of the law. At a young age, he starts working at a bootlegger for Tim Hickey. When his mentor is killed in a takeover operation by rival kingpin Albert White, Joe is pushed to the edge and ends up in prison. Over there, he will meet with the high society of the underworld and fight for his survival as he is the son of a chief of police (that, you know if you've read THE GIVEN DAY. But it's explained in the novel anyway). After another attempt on his life, an old prisoner introduces himself to him. He's Maso Pescatore, a local bootlegging legend. This introduction starts an intense and grudging relationship that will lead Joe to the shore of Florida to overtake the rum smuggling operation of a skimming partner. It would feel wrong to tell you more about the storyline as LIVE BY NIGHT covers the entirety of Joe Coughlin's professional outlaw life. Let's just say that his arrival to Tampa is only the beginning.
Let's get something out of the way. There's no overbearing or complacent historical research in LIVE BE NIGHT. There is some, but it often begins and ends on the same page. I'm not a fan of specific historical detail, but when they're kept so short, I can deal with it. It was petty from critics to even point it out. Also, it's not really dark or gritty and if it wasn't an outlaw bootlegger story, it wouldn't even register as hardboiled (I hesitated before putting the stamp on top of the review). It's an epic life-struggle story like Alexandre Dumas once wrote them (yes, I am comparing both). The form also reminds me of Jonathan Franzen and John Irving, but the content couldn't be any more different. LIVE BY NIGHT is the picaresque underdog tale of a kid who wanted to be the baddest man in town and lived up to his dreams. Dennis Lehane has let go of most of his trademark thematics and succeeded at creating memorable characters and dialogues that will live through you long after you close the pages.
Thomas Coughlin leaned forward, hands on his knees, and stared at his son.
Somewhere behind that gaze of iron lived a man who'd slept on the floor of Joe's hospital room for three days when Joe had the fever back in 1911, who'd read each of the city's eight newspapers to him, cover to cover, who told him he loved him, who told him if God wanted his son, He'd have to go through him, Thomas Xavier Coughlin, and God would know sure, what a rough proposition that could turn out to be.
In LIVE BY NIGHT, Dennis Lehane tackles a theme that is very dear to me. Dreams and abstract motivations. Through the character of Emma Gould, Lehane tells how love can turn men into pillars of strength. At the age of Joe Coughlin (early twenties), males of this era were often forced to brush away "petty" preoccupations such as the quest for love and happiness and start to build a material life (house, kids, career). The genius of LIVE BY NIGHT is to expose how Joe is driven by his longing and faint hopes to succeed and become a powerful man. This is exactly what hooked me emotionally to LIVE BY NIGHT. Joe's amazing success, despite never compromising and always keeping his eye on what he can't achieve. Also, the emotional battle of ideal vs reality takes a step forward when Joe meets the Cuban revolutionary Graciela, who is also caught in her unfinished business. Great characters will lead you so far and LIVE BY NIGHT is full of them.
All the criticism I'd have toward LIVE BY NIGHT is ultimately petty. There is some though. For example, the novel is maybe twenty pages too long. The closure feels way too overbearing, emotional and conventional to my tastes. Also, the character of Graciela is mildly sexist, but it's an issue that Lehane addresses the issue WITHIN the narration and well, socially speaking it's easy to judge with almost a century of perspective. I can't begrudge LIVE BY NIGHT for any of that, for it's a tremendous outlaw adventure novel that kept me hooked for hours at the time. The early century underworld, seen through Joe Coughlin's eyes is a deadly, yet fascinating playground for people who had a pathological dislike for compromise. I'm aware it's a novel that makes crime quite romantic, but there are harrowing scenes that portray how difficult it is to choose to live in this world. It's already been optioned for film by Ben Affleck and I expect it to be the most financially successful Lehane adaptation yet, for it is the most accessible. As for me, I'd rank it in my top 5 favorite Lehanes.
I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.