In the closing pages of “Moonlight Mile” (2010), the sixth volume in Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie/Gennaro detective series, Patrick Kenzie announces his intention to abandon his career as a private investigator, return to graduate school and take up the study of history. It requires no great stretch to view that declaration as a not-so-veiled reflection of the author’s own career plans. Having established a solid reputation as a stylish, viscerally compelling urban crime novelist, Lehane himself changed direction, finding new sources of inspiration in the recent American past. The most notable result of this change was “The Given Day” (2008), a sweeping historical epic and a pitch-perfect example of the crime novel as social history.
Set primarily in post-World War I Boston, “The Given Day” uses the experiences and internal conflicts of a single Irish American family — the Coughlins — to illuminate the defining events of an era. The big, densely packed narrative combines a large cast of fictional characters with artfully composed portraits of such real-life figures as Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, John Reed and the young J. Edgar Hoover. The novel ends in January 1920, with the Volstead Act — and 13 years of enforced Prohibition — about to descend on the nation.
Lehane’s latest, “Live by Night,” functions both as an independent narrative and a loosely connected sequel to “The Given Day.” The story begins in 1926, by which time Prohibition — perhaps the greatest gift to organized crime in the country’s history — is in full swing. The novel’s memorably conflicted hero is Joe Coughlin, the youngest member of the Coughlin clan and a man with serious parental issues. The son and brother of prominent Boston policemen, Joe has turned his back on the family business and gone his own very different way. Beginning with a series of petty street thefts, he rises to the upper echelons of the bootlegger’s trade, a thriving business that offers the potential for great wealth and violent death, as Lehane makes clear in his exemplary opening sentences: “Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard.”
What follows is an episodic narrative that traces the arc of Joe’s career from its earliest days through 1935, two years after the repeal of the Volstead Act. A significant moment occurs early on, when Joe and two compatriots hold up a poker game run by a powerful local mobster. Compounding this mistake, Joe meets — and falls for — the mobster’s mistress, setting in motion a sequence of events that reverberates throughout the novel.
Shortly afterward, a bank heist gone wrong sends Joe to prison, where he encounters Tommaso Pescatore, a Machiavellian crime boss who launches Joe on his high-flying, post-prison career. That career will lead from Boston to Tampa to Havana and will encompass romance, revenge and personal betrayal, along with sudden reversals of fortune, moments of extreme, often stunning, violence and an inevitably tragic denouement.
Reduced to a bare-bones summary, “Live by Night” might sound like the sort of standard crime saga we’ve all encountered far too many times. In Lehane’s hands, however, it becomes something larger and infinitely more complex. With its fresh, precise language, its acute sympathy for the passions that shape — and sometimes warp — its central characters and its lovingly detailed recreation of an earlier age, “Live by Night” transcends the familiar and assumes an unimpeachable reality of its own.
But the true heart of the book — and the heart of Lehane’s achievement — lies in the character of Joe Coughlin and in the moral quandary that comes to dominate his life. Joe sees himself — for a while, at least — as an outlaw, a man who lives by night, who takes pride in defying the conventions of the heartless, hypocritical daytime world. In his view, the outlaw stands above and apart from the morally bankrupt gangster whose actions add to the sum total of human misery. As his career progresses and these once-distinct categories bleed into one another, he is forced to acknowledge his contribution to the misery, chaos and brutality proliferating around him. That bitter and hard-won knowledge defines Joe’s life, lending resonance and depth to this meticulously crafted portrait of our violent national past.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
Live by Night
By Dennis Lehane
Morrow. 402 pp. $27.99