World Gone By by Dennis Lehane

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What an incredible career Dennis Lehane is having. Of his American contemporaries, perhaps only Michael Connelly has managed to sustain a similar degree of commercial and critical success in the crime genre. His early, gritty PI novels in the Kenzie and Gennaro series were followed by slick standalone thrillers like Mystic River and Shutter Island – both adapted into hit movies.

The greatest acclaim has been reserved for his series of novels exploring the rise of the fictional Coughlin clan which began in The Given Day and continued with Live by Night. These epics seek to chart the rise and fall of American organised crime in the first half of the 20th century. So there has been considerable interest in World Gone By, which closes the trilogy.

The action has moved on a decade or so since the end of Live by Night and into the 1940s. Joe Coughlin is now a respectable businessman based in Tampa, Florida. Appearances can be deceptive, and while he no longer directly takes part in any criminal activity, he remains consigliore to the Bartolo crime family, and is responsible for the smooth running of their interests.

Everything in Joe’s life seems to be blessed. His son Tomas seems to be recovering from his mother’s murder, and while World War II has taken some of his best soldiers off the streets, the fat government contracts his outfit has procured more than make up for this. Joe seems to have mastered the trick of making money without making enemies – something almost unheard of in the mafia.

He receives word that a contract has been placed on his head, and that he might be dead by Ash Wednesday. Joe assumes that his good standing with local boss Dion Bartolo and his place on the national board with the likes of mob accountant Meyer Lansky make a hit very unlikely. Still, it pays to be cautious in this line of work, and he takes his friend Rico DiGiacomo, an up-and-coming gangster, with him when he goes out on business.

At first, it seems the hit is no more than paranoid gossip, bound to occur in setting where millions of dollars change hands between violent men and a wrong word or look can mean death. But as the clock ticks down, it becomes apparent there is a power vacuum at the top of the Bartolo family, and someone means to fill it. To survive, Joe will have to discover who is behind the play, and decide whether to fight it or back it. Get that decision wrong, and it could be curtains.

When we reviewed Live by Night in 2012, we noted that Lehane’s writing matched his ambition, and the book subsequently won the Edgar Award for best novel. Something similar is in the offing here as large parts of World Gone By are stunning. His depictions of the gangsters Montooth Nix and King Lucius – the former a proud man reaching the end of the road, the latter a monstrous narcissist barely in touch with reality but as deadly as a cobra – stand out in particular.

There are two slight let-downs. Joe becomes haunted by a ghost, and this supernatural depiction of his conscience feels unnecessary. Lehane also seems to have grown too close to Joe, and might like him a bit much. His portrait as a sophisticated, likeable and loyal man doesn’t ring true with the kind of ruthless, amoral decisions he makes on a daily basis. It’s frustrating that the author is trying to have his cake and eat it.

However World Gone By certainly lives up to the standards of the books that preceded it, and provides a fitting close to a trilogy. Grand in ambition, it is also superb in execution.

World Gone By is released 10 March in the US and comes out in May in the UK.

William Morrow & Company

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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