LIVE BY NIGHT
by Dennis Lehane
William Morrow: 416 p.p., $27.99
In a recent interview, Dennis Lehane told fellow author Stephen Anable, "one of the reasons I write is because of all the Jimmy Cagney movies I watched when I was young. The gangster novel is my favorite sub-genre."
Although his fame comes from a different sub-genre — a series of critically acclaimed private-eye novels — and the not-quite-ganglandish "Mystic River" and "Shutter Island," Lehane's new book is unquestionably a gangster novel. And, no surprise from a Boston-bred Cagney fan, its flawed protagonist is a cocky, fast-talking, Irish American, the youngest son of a high-ranking Boston police official.
In defiance of his father, Joe Coughlin has opted for a life of crime. And he's picked an ideal time for it: Prohibition, when a smart, likable young sociopath can rise from minor hoodlum to mob boss of the Florida Gulf Coast.
The Coughlins are not new to fiction. Lehane created them for his 2008 historical novel "The Given Day," a sprawling epic covering a turbulent post-WWI period in Boston's history that included a flu pandemic and the infamous 1919 police strike. Joe's older brother Danny was at the front of that novel, a copper who became a spokesman for the striking officers.
Danny and his dad are present in the new novel, but this is Joe's story. And even though Lehane has been scrupulous in researching and capturing a dramatic era in America, Joe's is a novel more narrow-focused than epic.
The first third of the book, the Boston section, is a tight, feverishly paced mixture of crime and romance, in which a 20-year-old Joe, amid a robbery, meets his first true love, Emma Gould, a femme fatale with eyes "the color of very cold gin." He pursues her, ignoring that she is the mistress of a ruthless gang boss.
It's a perfect noir setup, and Lehane is skillful enough to make Joe's passion as convincingly all-consuming as that experienced by any of the besotted fall guys penned by such masters as James M. Cain or Cornell Woolrich.
Unlike most noir protagonists, however, Joe is given a second chance, thanks to a meeting in prison with an elderly mobster who, from behind bars, controls "the liquor coming up from Florida." He arranges for Joe's early release and makes him his main man in Tampa.
If the Boston section of the book resembles a contained suspense novel, the twice-as-long Tampa section unfolds in an almost picaresque series of adventures, with episodes involving the Ku Klux Klan, temperance leagues and an affair with a Cuban woman "with skin the color of brass and long black hair as black as anything Joe had ever seen except, perhaps, her eyes."
None of this is less than compulsive reading. Lehane's style combines detailed, almost poetic description, vigorous action and nuanced dialogue. And if style isn't enough, he's creative and generous in providing all the romance, surprises, violence, betrayals, treacheries and plot twists necessary to keep the pages turning.
There is a moment late in the book when the reckless love story that propels its first and arguably best section is brought to an effective conclusion. But the author is apparently too much a moralist to call it a day with Joe enjoying both closure and a bright future paid for by blood money. Lehane ends the book with a sequence that's almost the literary counterpart of the final comments Alfred Hitchcock would toss away on his television series to appease the censors' rule about crime not paying. It's the only awkwardly engineered plot shift in this otherwise satisfying and intelligently crafted novel.
Lochte's current novel is the thriller "Blues in the Night"; his two New Orleans novels, "Blue Bayou" and "The Neon Smile," have just been reprinted in trade paperback and ebook editions.