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'Live by Night' by Dennis Lehane - Book Review

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Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

William Morrow
  • Live by Night by Dennis Lehane was published October 2, 2012.
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • 416 pages

Book Review

I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane. He’s one of America’s best authors working today and he sits on the throne of crime fiction (though he does have to share the crown when Richard Price releases a new novel).

I also love the direction his writing seems to be headed in crafting historical fiction set during pivotal times in our nation’s history. His last historical novel, The Given Day, was set in Boston during the period at the end of the World War I, a turbulent time in the city’s and the nation’s history with immigration, riots and potential revolution causing a maelstrom of fear and possibility. The Given Day was a sprawling work; Lehane cast his reel far out beyond crime fiction into the ocean of literature and reeled in an impressive catch. The story could be a little unwieldy and seemingly anachronistic in the voices of the characters at times, but the finished tale was impressive.

With Live by Night, he’s tightened his grip and sharpened his historical voice, reverting back into the noir genre he’s most familiar with. Live by Night focuses on one central character -- Joseph Coughlin -- rather than three (The Given Day featured Danny Coughlin, Joe’s older brother as one of the main characters) and works through three story arcs. Coughlin’s story is set during the Prohibition era before World War II, when gangsters profited from the rum trade. Live by Night is about half as long as The Given Day was, but Lehane has expanded his locations from focusing on just Boston, to now exploring Tampa and Cuba and the U.S.’s relations with the troubled island.

All this sounds tantalizing doesn’t it? A bit feverish and exciting? At times, it is. But the rampant nihilism and slow middle left me neither enthusiastic nor cold. I just felt uncomfortably warm like Joe’s white Irish body in the Tampa Bay sun. In Live by Night, Lehane is still working within the framework of cops and criminals and the ambiguity of relative morality. Joe Coughlin, the son and brother of police officers, has chosen to be an outlaw who eventually becomes one of the gangsters he always despised. In classic noir plot dynamics, he falls for the boss’ girl, gets caught, suffers the consequences and ends up in prison after a bank robbery goes sour due to double crossings and revenge.

In prison, he switches bosses in order to survive, but causes great harm to his father in the process and Thomas Coughlin dies before seeing his son get out of jail. Once Joe is released from prison, he heads down to Tampa to take over the rum trade for the Italian mafia. There he reconnects with an old friend, finds a new love, becomes the de factor mayor of the Ybor section of Tampa, attempts to go legal and suffers the sins of his past as they come back to haunt him. Religious fanaticism and U.S. foreign policy are also observed in the process, but with no real depth or balance of perspective. Lehane’s viewpoint is Joe’s and they both hold strongly to their own ideals even when they’re staring their contradictions in the face. "C'est la vie.” I wonder what that sounds like in Spanish.

You can definitely see scenes play out on the big screen and it wouldn’t surprise me if Live by Night by becomes a feature film that might play stronger than the book. The rights have already been purchased for it to be made into a movie. Live by Night could have used some trimming during Joe’s initial time in Tampa. If the screenwriter can solve the pace issues in the novel, he’ll have a compelling character and story to wrestle with as long as audiences haven’t grown tired of noir from dips in HBO’s successful Boardwalk Empire series and 2013’s first Hollywood flop, Gangster Squad.

Live by Night is the second in Lehane’s planned trilogy of stories exploring the early part of the 20th century. My guess is that the third will deal with the other Coughlin brother who made it as a screenwriter for the film industry. Here’s hoping that one keeps pace with the Roaring Twenties.

Book Club Discussion Questions

If you want to think more deeply about Live by Night or lead a discussion with your book club, these questions can help.

Spoiler Warning: These questions reveal details of the book. Finish the book before reading on.

  1. Did you find Live by Night worthy as a standalone apart from The Given Day?
  2. What appealed to you about the character of Joe Coughlin?
  3. How does Joe Coughlin compare to other gangsters in film and literature?
  4. Were there any new historical events you learned about through Live by Night? If so, what were they?
  5. What are your thoughts on the novel’s views of the law? Religion? Foreign policy?
  6. What was your favorite section of the novel: in Boston, in Tampa or in Cuba?
  7. Were you surprised by the ending?
  8. What do you think will become of Joe’s son?
  9. How would you compare this to Lehane’s other crime noirs?
  10. Rate Live by Night 1 to 5.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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