An enterprising Boston criminal does well by doing wrong in ‘Live by Night’

November 3, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 3, 2014

Nearly two years ago, I read my first Dennis Lehane novel — The Given Day, Lehane’s sprawling 2008 tale of the well-to-do Coughlin family and their servants (one a black man, the other an Irish immigrant). I enjoyed the book tremendously, as did a relative of mine, who has since been consuming other Lehane works and passing them on to me.

Since then, I’ve read four other Lehane outings: the mystery Shutter Island, the Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro detective novels Moonlight Mile and A Drink Before the War, and now Live by Night.

Live by Night, published in 2012, is a sequel of sorts to The Given Day. The book begins in Boston in 1926, six years after the advent of Prohibition. Young Joe Coughlin — the son of a prominent Boston police official — is working as an aide (and part-time muscle) for a local mobster. After a bank heist goes horribly wrong, leaving three cops dead, Coughlin is nabbed while trying to meet with his lover, Emma Gould, before skipping town.

Coughlin is sentenced to prison, where he falls in with another gangster. After several treacherous years behind bars, his new boss orders the about-to-be-freed Coughlin to take charge of the rum-running business in Tampa, Fla.

In order to win over a key ally, a Cuban interested in overthrowing his native country’s corrupt American-backed dictator, Coughlin devises a plot to raid a shipment of weapons being carried by a Navy vessel. This caper culminates in Coughlin’s consummating a relationship with one of revolutionaries, a dark-skinned woman named Graciela Corrales.

Although Coughlin is still hung up on Gould, he fashions a new life with Corrales, a worker in a local cigar factory. Much of Live by Night involves Coughlin’s attempts to fend off rivals and traitors who want to take control of his rum-running operation. Later, he and Corrales and their young son move to Cuba in a sort of semi-retirement, although even then there remain a few figures from the past whom Coughlin must confront.

In the book’s first scene, Coughlin and his close friends, brothers Dion and Paolo Bartolo, rob a poker game that — to their chagrin — turns out to be linked to Albert White, one of Boston’s crime bosses.

Brenny Loomis locked eyes with Joe. “I’ll call your mother when this is over, boy. Suggest a nice dark suit for your coffin.”

Loomis, a former club boxer at Mechanics Hall and sparring partner for Mean Mo Mullins, was said to have a punch like a bag of cue balls. He killed people for Albert White. Not for a living, exclusively, but rumor was he wanted Albert to know, should it ever become a full-time position, he had seniority.

Joe had never experienced fear like he did looking into Loomis’s tiny brown eyes, but he gestured at the floor with his gun nonetheless, quite surprised that his hand didn’t shake. Brendan Loomis laced his hands behind his head and got on his knees. Once he did, the others did the same.

Joe said to the girl, “Come over here, miss. We won’t harm you.”

She stubbed out her cigarette and looked at him like she was thinking about lighting another, maybe freshening her drink. She crossed to him, a girl near his own age, maybe twenty or so, with winter eyes and skin so pale he could almost see through it to the blood and tissue underneath.

He watched her come as the Bartolo brothers relieved the card-players of their weapons. The pistols made heavy thumps as they tossed them onto a nearby blackjack table, but the girl didn’t even flinch. In her eyes, firelights danced behind the gray.

She stepped up to his gun and said, “And what will the gentleman be having with his robbery this morning?”

Joe handed her one of the two canvas sacks he’d carried in. “The money on the table, please.”

“Coming right up, sir.”

The young woman is Gould, of course, and with an introduction like this, it’s understandable why Coughlin would have trouble forgetting about her — even if she is White’s mistress.

Lehane, as usual, displays a knack for animating his characters, even bit players; he’s also skilled at building tension and writing action scenes. Without question, Live by Night is an enjoyable read.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to the standard set by The Given Day, which delved more deeply into the social, economic and political forces that were reshaping Boston — and the nation — in the wake of World War I. Race relations were a major topic in the earlier novel; in Live by Night, we only get glimpses of the issue, which mainly seem thrown in to spice up Coughlin’s gangster exploits with a splash of period color. In that sense, this novel has more in common with the Kenzie/Gennaro books, which function better as genre entertainment than highbrow literary endeavors.

But I’ll give credit to Lehane for resisting the temptation to wrap up Live by Night with a pat, happy ending for the protagonist and his family. Instead, it ends on a bittersweet note, with Coughlin having paid a high price — even if it isn’t an entirely fair or just one — for his crooked ways.

While it isn’t Lehane’s most ambitious work, Live by Night is still a pretty good novel. If you’re looking for a solid Prohibition-era gangster yarn, this makes for an excellent choice.

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