It would not, should not, matter a bit to Dennis Lehane that I am late getting around to his books. Without the benefit of my eyes and credit card, he has had a critically and financially successful career since publishing his first novel, “A Drink Before the War,” in 1994. That was the first in what would be six novels in what is called the Kenzie-Gennaro series, featuring a pair of private eyes named Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro.
He has written other books, too, as well as a short story collection and a play, and has become a frequent presence on best-seller lists. Three of his books have been made into movies.
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Therein lies the problem with me, and I have to assume with other avid readers who also see movies based on books and think "Why bother with the source material?" When I saw the film version of "Mystic River" in 2003, I could not imagine that the book could be better than the Clint Eastwood-directed film, starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney. I was not alone in my admiration: The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best actor, best adapted screenplay (by Brian Helgeland), best supporting actress and best supporting actor. Penn won for best actor and Robbins best supporting actor, an acting exacta that had not happened since 1959's "Ben Hur." (Movies have also been made based on Lehane's "Shutter Island" and "Gone Baby Gone" but I haven't seen those).
But simply out of curiosity, I picked up Lehane's latest, "Live by Night," opened it and was immediately taken by its first sentence: "Some years later, on a Tuesday in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement."
Though this does not rank with that time-warping first sentence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa) — "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice" — I was hooked.
This is his first book not set entirely in Lehane's native Boston, though it does begin there. But by page 155, he takes us to Tampa, Fla., and he captures it evocatively: "It wasn't just the sun, which hung high and white in a sky swept so clear of clouds it was as if clouds never existed (and maybe they didn't down here; Joe had no idea), it was the jungle humidity, like he was wrapped inside a ball of steel wool someone had dropped into a pot of oil."
Joe is Joe Coughlin, the young and ambitious gangster on the make who graduates from petty crimes to running the illegal booze trade in Florida. He is smart and he is driven and, complicating matters considerably, he is also the youngest son of a Boston police captain. A compelling character, Joe is trying mightily throughout the book to adjust his moral compass as his world spins.
"Live By Night" is a captivating, blood-drenched story set against the backdrop of, and capturing vividly, those raucous days and nights of Prohibition, and filled with a compelling and large cast of characters, many of them gun-toting bad guys but also bible-thumpers, Klansmen and other exotic sorts. But this also is a love story, two love stories actually: Joe's love lost (in the form of Emma Gould, a sassy, self-assured waitress in the speak-easy, who is the girlfriend of a mob boss) and love found (in the person of Graciela Corrales, deeply involved in the rum-running game in Florida and tied to the revolutionary cause in her native Cuba).
Lehane masterfully moves the plot, tossing in all manner of pleasant and shocking surprises, and his writing is forceful and direct, his dialogue movie-ready, as in this exchange between an imprisoned Joe and his mobster/mentor Maso Pescatore:
"'You'll be out of here soon,' Maso told him through the mesh.
"'All due respect,' Joe said, 'how soon?'
"'By the summer.'
"Joe smiled. 'Really?'
"Maso nodded. 'Judges don't come cheap, though. You're going to have to work that off.'
"'Why don't we call it even for me not killing you?'"
Grabbed by the book's first sentence, I wound up haunted a few hours later by the final two chapters. So the next day I bought, at random from a bookstore shelf, Lehane's "The Given Day," a terrific historical novel centering on the 1919 Boston police strike. And there I found, much to my delight, the young Joe Coughlin, just a kid, unaware of the life he would have in the author's inventive hands.
Now I have moved on tothe Kenzie-Gennaro series, and "Mystic River" is up next. I hope to finish it by the time the movie version of "Live by Night" hits the theaters.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
"Live by Night"
By Dennis Lehane, William Morrow, 416 pages, $27.99Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times