Written by Dennis Lehane — Live By Night is the second book in a trilogy in which Lehane is exploring mid-20th century America. The first, The Given Day, was published to great acclaim in 2008, and fans have been looking forward to Live by Night ever since.
While The Given Day featured the Boston PD patrolman Aiden ‘Danny’ Coughlin, as well as his father Thomas who was a prominent detective and captian on the force, Live By Night takes up the story of younger brother Joe. Joe’s work is on the other side of the law. The book is split into three parts and we start in Boston between 1926 and 29 during which time Joe graduates from teenage rebel to gangster and armed robber. He works with Tom Hickey’s mob and becomes a cop-killer and convicted felon struggling to survive in the horrific Charlestown Penetintiary. He comes under the protection of Italian mobster Maso Pescatore.
Then we head south to Ybor, which is just outside Tampa in Florida. There Joe runs Pescatore’s rum smuggling operation with the help of a team of Cuban exiles bent on overthrowing President Machado, a puppet of American foreign policy. Inevitably, then, it’s on to Cuba for the book’s final period, 1933-35. Now, Joe and his family try to survive the fallout of the end of Prohibition and get in on the ground floor of Cuba’s burgeoning gambling scene.
Besides Joe’s criminal career, there are two other story arcs. The first of these involves his relationships with the two women in his life. The first, Emma Gould, Joe meets when holding up a card game. She is the mistress of a rival gangster, and seems to be missing something inside. Her beauty and Joe’s youthful naivety put his life in danger as he risks everything trying to connect with her. Then there’s Graciela Corrales, the revolutionary that Joe eventually marries, whose love provides him with the closest thing to redemption he can find.
The second story arc covers his relationship with his father. Thomas and Joe are profoundly ambivalent towards each other. Joe’s criminal career is obviously embarassing to his father, and when three policemen die in a botched bank robbery Thomas allows his colleagues to beat his son half to death. However when Joe is threatened in prison, Thomas agrees to do Pescatore’s bidding to keep Joe safe. He’s a bought cop and it eventually does him in – Thomas dies of a heart attack. Joe mocks his father for his inability to make his mother happy, yet craves his approval.
With such a generational storyline, don’t expect a tightly-plotted crime book where the deed is done, the detective solves the case, and everybody moves on. Though not as lengthy as The Given Day, it has the same epic feel to it. However, the lack of a clear plot may put some off. That would be a shame because Lehane’s writing often matches his ambition. Particular highlights include Joe’s infatuation with and seduction of Emma Gould – though perhaps that worked the other way around – and his time in Charlestown Penitentiary. The author conjures up a truly terrifying environment where convicts enter as men and leave as animals, having had to shed every trace of humanity in order to survive.
After an electric first couple of hundred pages the writing does grow slightly less dazzling. Also, Joe’s romance with the revolutionary Graciela seems a little contrived, and unlikely. With American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s A Rover, James Ellroy attempted to create the ‘great American novel’ within the crime fiction genre. Like Ellroy, perhaps Lehane doesn’t quite succeed, but he should be celebrated for trying.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars