I am not going to call LIVE BY NIGHT my favorite Dennis Lehane book --- that honor still goes to SHUTTER ISLAND and MYSTIC RIVER in a photo-finish --- but it’s certainly a close second. As one reads Lehane’s latest, it’s easy to hear the cylinders of great fiction --- plot, character and pacing --- clicking immutably and irrevocably into place.
"Ultimately, Lehane’s prose is the primary element that makes LIVE BY NIGHT the winner it is and places it among the best novels chronicling a bygone era."
LIVE BY NIGHT is the second book in a loose trilogy set around the Coughlin family, the patriarch of which is a Boston police captain, in the 1920s. The first novel of the project, THE GIVEN DAY, concerned older son Danny. This one deals with Joe, the youngest of the Coughlin brothers, the bad seed who turned to a life a crime. It begins, interestingly enough, with what certainly seems to be an ending: Joe, encased in a block of cement aboard a boat in the middle of a body of water just off of Tampa, Florida. The narrative then proceeds with his recollections as he ponders how he arrived at his present set of circumstances. His slide is gradual but, once begun, is seemingly irrevocable and inevitable. Joe is drawn to the dark like a moth to a flame.
Have you seen those Scotch commercials with the wise guys toasting each other, living it up as the beautiful women look on? That’s the life to which Joe aspires, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Where Joe is different is in his approach, which is tender when it can be and tough where it must be. So it is that he attempts, for example, to approve the lot of the prostitutes in his employ, yet will not hesitate to use brutal methods to straighten out his employees when crossed. At his best, Lehane is capable of writing dialogue that crackles and phrases that spark. There are a number of exchanges that are on par with the best quotes from such books as SWAG by Elmore Leonard and iconic caper films like Atlantic City. There are passages that you will note, save and underline to read again and again.
As Joe’s ambitions grow and his power increases, his territory grows from Boston to Tampa to Cuba. Even as his ascension takes place, Lehane plants the seed of Joe’s downfall here and there throughout the narrative. His fatal flaw is perhaps that he is a good person trying to do bad in an imperfect world that he did not make but nevertheless nurtures. Those engaging in such activity do not have an extended shelf life, a fact demonstrated time and again here. Are the highs worth the multiple --- and premature --- lows? LIVE BY NIGHT wisely does not attempt to answer this question; it’s up to the beholder.
The shortcomings that I detected in THE GIVEN DAY are absent here. While Lehane may strain here and there to insert an archetypal figure into the narrative for symbolic effect, for the most part he does so smoothly enough that the metaphor wins out. Ultimately, Lehane’s prose is the primary element that makes LIVE BY NIGHT the winner it is and places it among the best novels chronicling a bygone era.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 12, 2012