Book Review: Live By Night by Dennis Lehane (Kindle Edition)

Posted: November 4, 2012 in Books

Joe Coughlin is a small time gangster in Boston in the 1920’s, at the height of Prohibition. Joe robs banks with the Bartolo Brothers, Dion and Paolo.  The all work for the gang run by Tim Hickey.  Hickey’s main rival is Albert White.  Joe and the Bartolo brothers are stealing money from one of Albert’s speakeasy bars, when Joe meets Emma Gould, a waitress at the speakeasy.  He falls in love with her immediately, despite the fact that she is Albert White’s moll. The real trouble begins for Joe when he’s driving the getaway car for the Bartolo brothers during a bank robbery, two cops end up dead, and Joe is hurt but survives, as does Dion, Paolo, who shot one of the cops is killed  Joe takes the money from the bank robbery and stores it in a bus station. At the same time, Albert finds out that Joe has his money, and is sweet on his gal, so he sends members of his gang to finish Joe off.  Joe is “saved” from death at the hands of Albert’s gang by Thomas Coughlin, a high ranking, but corrupt police officer who happens to be Joe’s father.  Thomas may take the occasional bribe, but he doesn’t like his son’s profession, nor the fact that Joe is now an accused cop killer, so he lets his men on the force beat Joe up, as an object lesson to Joe, and to cover his own tracks as a corrupt cop.  The gangsters in Albert White’s gang take Emma away, a wild chase ensues and Emma is persumed dead. Joe only gets five years in prison, at Charlestown state penitentiary, because of a plea from his dad to the D.A.

In Charlestown, Joe meets Maso Pescatore, a big time gangster.  Maso wants Joe’s father Thomas to order a raid on one of Albert White’s warehouses.  Thomas orders one of his underlings to hit the warehouse, and it is destroyed.  In return for the favor, Maso gives Joe protection offers Joe a job when he get out of jail.  Joe is now head of rum distribution in Tampa, he brings Dion along from his old gang for protection, and leans on some of the people who control the distribution of rum to end the bottlenecks, but in order to really control the supply routes of rum distribution in Florida, he has to win over Esteban Suarez, to do that, Joe has to steal guns from a US warship to foment a revolution against President Machado of Cuba.  The raid would also impress Graciella Corrales, a Cuban exile, who Joe has developed an incredible lust for. Incredibly, Joe’s gang pulls off the raid on the warship, Joe and Esteban become partners, and Joe and Graciella become lovers. From then on, Joe takes on anyone who seeks to unseat him from his growing rum empire, the head of the local Klan, to the Bible thumping fundamentalist daughter of the local sheriff, but he doesn’t kill anyone who stands in his way he just comes to mutually understood agreements with all of them.  So what happens when Maso comes to Tampa with his son Digger in tow?  Does Maso plan to give Joe more territory to control? After all, profits in the rum business are up substantially.  Or does Maso have something else in mind for Joe?

I did not like this book.  I was expecting better from the author of such books as Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone, Baby Gone, but I have several complaints about this book.  Everything seems to come too easy for Joe Coughlin, h’s in a car accident, gets beaten to a pulp by cops, gets stabbed in prison, and yet comes out of prison and stages a raid against the US Navy, with a small gang of raiders and pulls it off.  Every time Joe got into a tough situation, I had a feeling he would get out of it, because he got out of every situation up to that point.  Also, there is some historical content in this book, like the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, two suspected anarchists who were executed, or Honey Fitz, John Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston, and former congressman, or John Ringling, head of the famous circus, but he mentions these names in passing and does not really weave these names into the story.  Lehene tries to weave Lucky Luciano into the story too, but Luciano and his sidekick Mayer Lansky into the picture, but it’s much too late in the book for Luciano and Lansky to get more than a cursory mention.  Sometimes Lehane lapses into cliche, I almost fell off my chair when Lehane mentioned cement shoes.  This is a pre-eminant writer of crime drama?  I’ve heard the phrase cement shoes in every bad gangster film I’ve seen.
That is not to say that there are not iinteresting elememnts in this book.  Emma Gould is an intreresting character, but she is presumed dead and forgotten for most of the book.  The Klansman could have been an interesting character if given more space to develop, but he’s in and out of the book, Loretta Figgis, an Amy Semple McPherson type evangelist, is perhaps the most interesting character in the book, and could have been an intesting lead character, but again is treated as an afterthought by Lehane.  These interesting elements are never fully synthesized into a cohesive novel, so I found vast elements of this book unintersting, and nothing changed that impression.
Live By Night.  Living by the reputation of its author.
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