By Dennis Lehane
Morrow. 309 pp. $27.99
By Lene Kaaberbol
Translated from the Danish by Elisabeth Dyssegaard
Atria. 287 pp. $25
With the appearance of his first novel, “A Drink Before the War,” in 1994, Dennis Lehane acquired an instant reputation as one of the most stylish urban crime writers in America. Lehane sustained that reputation over the course of several more novels, many featuring the detective team of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro.
Then, in 2008, he confounded expectations with “The Given Day,” an ambitious historical epic set against the profusely detailed backdrop of post-World War I Boston. “The Given Day” introduced the Coughlins, an Irish-Catholic family with deep roots in the Boston Police Department. In 2012, Lehane published the Edgar Award-winning “Live by Night,” featuring Joe Coughlin, the youngest, most disaffected member of the Coughlin clan, who turned his back on the family tradition of law enforcement and became a rising star in the world of bootlegging.
“World Gone By,” the third and final installment in the Coughlin saga, takes place several years later in a rapidly changing society. Prohibition is gone and the world is once again at war. Now a 36-year-old widower, Joe has abandoned his prior role as an active gang leader and serves as a counselor to his childhood friend Dion Bartolo, who runs his piece of a large criminal empire from his base in Ybor City, Fla. At the same time, Joe is raising his 9-year-old son, Tomas, the only person he genuinely loves.
The bulk of the action takes place in the spring of 1943. As the distant war rages on multiple fronts, smaller wars — for position, honor, territory and profits — are being waged in Ybor City. In short order, a racially tinged turf war breaks out in the area known as “Brown Town.” Rumors of a “rat” — a government informant within the Bartolo organization — proliferate. And Joe learns that he is the target of an intended assassination scheduled to take place on Ash Wednesday. Despite the fact that he has spent distancing himself from the sharp end of the family activities, someone — possibly someone from the distant past — wants him dead. Joe’s attempts to discover the source of this threat form the central thread in this tightly focused, frequently brutal book.
As the action moves from Ybor City to a startling denouement in the cane fields of Cuba, Lehane gives us an intimate look at a world governed by greed, fear and ruthless self-interest. The result is a novel in which all of Lehane’s gifts are on full display: the crisp, sharply observed action sequences, the varied and convincing characterizations, the effortless narrative momentum and some of the best, most authentic dialogue this side of the late George V. Higgins.
As in “Live by Night,” the centerpiece of this story — and the heart of Lehane’s considerable achievement — is the complex, contradictory character of Joe, who has come a long way from the lonely, neglected adolescent in “The Given Day.” In Lehane’s nuanced portrayal, Joe is a natural leader of men with an infinite capacity for both good and evil who is haunted by images from the past. In his younger days, Joe drew a crucial distinction between the Outlaw, who rejects the rules and conventions of a hypocritical society, and the Gangster, whose actions add to the sum total of human misery. In recognizing the primacy of the gangster within himself, he is forced to recognize his essential human failings. This compelling portrait of a man struggling to survive while confronting the battered remnants of his soul adds resonance, depth and a touch of real sorrow to this meticulous recreation of a world gone by.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
On a winter’s night, a beautiful creature lies motionless on a doorstep. “It is snowing. The snow falls on the young girl’s face, on her cheeks, mouth, and nose, and on her eyes. She does not blink it away. She lies very still in her nest of snow.”
This could be “The Little Match Girl” or some other fairy-tale waif, so beautifully does Danish writer Lene Kaaberbol paint the timeless, silent tableau. Within a few sentences, however, we are jolted from frozen stillness into a far colder reality. “The young girl lay on a stretcher in the hospital’s chapel. They had removed the fur coat, which was now hanging across the lid of the waiting coffin.”
In her stirring novel “Doctor Death,” Kaaberbol repeatedly lulls us into complacent enjoyment only to shock us with details so vivid that the past becomes the breathing present. “The wolf looked at me with its moon-pale eyes,” a young woman reports. “Its jaws were open so I could see the dark ribbed throat, the meat-colored tongue, and the yellowed, worn teeth.” Oh yes, there are wolves, all right. And outlaws. And nuns, for goodness sake.
But is there murder? How did Cecile Montaine, that girl in the snow, die? This is what Albert Karno, a forensic doctor in France in 1894, and his daughter Madeleine, who is also his assistant, ask when they first contemplate the lovely corpse. The body is covered in small bites and from its nostrils crawl pale mites that “lived in her while she lived and are leaving her now that she is dead.”
When a second mysterious death occurs, these creepy parasites become vital clues. Guided by her consuming passion for science, Madeleine, our engaging narrator, ventures from her father’s chilly house into the forest where the deepest mystery seems to reside. “I knew where I was,” she confesses when suddenly imperiled. “I was just no longer certain who or what.”
Madeleine’s escapades might easily have tipped the novel into gothic melodrama, but Kaaberbol, who is best known as the co-author of a children’s book series and of the novel “The Boy in the Suitcase,” keeps a tight rein on her high-spirited plot. Madeleine is a convincing heroine whose dry observations of the most lurid scene — a doctor operating on a terrified patient’s tumor – steady the narrative as it accelerates through twists and revelations.
“Doctor Death” might have been subtitled “A French Enlightenment Mystery,” so thoroughly does the philosophy of reason and the discipline of science pervade these pages. But emotion is here too, and it is all the more potent for being repressed. In one memorable scene, for instance, Madeleine’s polite interrogation of Cecile’s former fiance triggers furious obscenity, and then “he grabbed both my upper arms, so that the teacup fell out of my hands and tinkled quietly against the carpet. . . . ‘Are you like that, too?’ he repeated. ‘You come here and insist . . . You make me tell you . . . things . . . use words . . . that no lady would.’ ”
Soon Madeleine herself will be sensually awakened, but even then, Kaaberbol infuses predictable romance with an astringent dose of reason. Presented with a daringly practical proposal from a charismatic suitor, Madeleine wonders “whether one might be married without being impregnated and conquered.” Kaaberbol seems to promise further adventures for this bride of science and woman of feeling.
Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer.