Book review: Live By Night, by Dennis Lehane

IF YOU’VE read The Given Day – when Dennis Lehane switched tracks from writing tight and ultra-filmable thrillers (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island) to epic (and no less filmable) historical fiction – you’ll already have met Joe Coughlin.

Live By Night

Dennis Lehane

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Little, Brown, £16.99

You probably didn’t notice, because back then he was just a kid. The focus then was on his elder brother Danny, a ­Boston cop with more than enough on his plate, like the 1919 influenza epidemic, anarchist bombings and the police strike that reduced the city to anarchy.

Pushing on into the Roaring Twenties, into the Prohibition years, Lehane has realised that he needs a protagonist on the wrong side of the law. Enter young Joe, in a masked pre-dawn raid on a gangster poker game, where he walks off with the night’s takings and – to double his trouble – an infatuation with the main man’s moll.

Soon she becomes the love of his life: “Whatever she had, he wanted it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. He wanted it for the rest of his life – the freckles along her collarbone and the bridge of her nose, the hum that left her throat after she’d finished laughing, the way she turned “four into a two-syllable word.”

But we’re deep in noir land, so the course of true love won’t run smooth, and before too long Joe will be arrested, will be fighting to keep clear of prison rape parties, teaming up with a jailed Mafia boss, running a key outpost of the rum business in Florida and losing more and more of his conscience before finding it all over again.

Lehane tells the story in prose that is a cross between medium rare and bloody. Only when Joe – or his rivals – explain their motivation does it change to being overdone and indigestible.

For the most part, though, this is a book that should put his name where it belongs, right up there alongside Doctorow and Dreiser. «