Review: Live By Night

Live By Night“The people we service? They visit the night. But we live in it. They rent what we own.”

I suspected I’d like Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night by when I read the title of the Chapter One, ‘A Twelve O’Clock Fella in a Nine O’Clock Town’. With the opening line, ‘Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement’, I was hooked.

Lehane combines an engrossing plot and seamless historical setting with complex, credible characters, expressing it all in hard-boiled poetry.

Live By Night is drama in three acts. Part 1 takes place in Boston between 1926 and 1929, starting with the moment where Joe Coughlin crosses paths with Emma Gould as he robs a speakeasy owned by crime boss Albert White. Joe is besotted by Emma, her ‘birthmark the color of wet sand’, her sangfroid. But Emma is Albert White’s girl, and you know it’s all going to end in tears even before the heist supposed to fund their getaway goes wrong and two cops die.

Joe ends up in the Charlestown Penitentiary but not before his father Thomas Coughlin, a high-ranking cop in the Boston Police Department, orders him beaten into a coma.

While Joe is doing time, a war is raging between Albert White and his chief competitor Maso Pescatore for control of Boston’s speakeasy trade. The alliances Joe forges in prison sent him on the path to Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, where part 2 of the book is set, covering the years 1929-33.

While the Prohibition era continues to provide rich fodder for American fiction, I enjoyed the focus in Live By Night on a part of the United States I knew little about. The Ybor City of Lehane’s novel is a neighbourhood built on cigar factories, where ethnic tensions simmer among Italians, white Cubans, black Cubans, Spaniards, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Americanos.

Into this environment, Joe Coughlin brings a ruthless pragmatism that sees him become so successful a bootlegger that he fears he is ‘starting to live by day, where the swells lived, where the insurance salesmen and the bankers lived, where the civic meetings were held and the little flags were waved at the Main Street parades.’

But good life cannot last for Joe. His destiny has been foreshadowed, if not in the book’s opening line, then in this exchange between Joe and his father Thomas Coughlin in the second chapter:

“What I’ve learned is that violence procreates. And the children your violence produces will return to you as savage, mindless things. You won’t recognize them as yours, but they’ll recognize you. They mark you as deserving of their punishment.”
…”And what exactly are these violent offspring punishing me for again?”
“The carelessness of their reproduction.” His father leaned forward, elbows on the table, palms pressed together. “Joseph.”
“Joe.”
“Joseph, violence breeds violence. It’s an absolute.”

That part 3 of the novel, set in 1933-35, is called ‘All the Violent Children’ speaks for itself.

Live By Night works brilliantly as hard-boiled crime fiction, or as The New York Times referred to it, ‘a Tommy-gun salute to vintage noir.’ But it avoids glamorising violence with its ruminations on the big existential questions and the absolutism Joe’s father alludes to. As charismatic and sympathetic as Joe Coughlin might be, Lehane doesn’t let us forget about those savage, mindless offspring of his.

Though the ending feels rushed, it also feels right.

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane (2012) is published by Little Brown. Tune into Radio National Books and Arts Daily on Wed 13 March after 10am to hear my review on air.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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8 Responses to Review: Live By Night

  1. Angela – An excellent review, for which thanks. Lehane has done some fantastic noir novels and although I’ll confess I haven’t read this one, I’m not surprised you found yourself hooked. I happen to really enjoy historical novels too, or at least novels with an historical theme. Thanks for something new to add to my list.

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    • angelasavage says:

      This was my first Lehane, Margot, and it won’t be my last. I’ve heard it said that he is one writer who consistently improves with each new book. I look forward to your thoughts on Live By Night when you get around to reading it.

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  2. Great review, Angela. I agree it was a terrific book.LIVE BY NIGHT reads so smoothly, it’s feels like Lehane knocked it out over some quiet beers over a weekend or two. I agree that the the ending was far too rushed. It detracted a bit from the book.

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    • angelasavage says:

      I think it’s a measure of the book’s quality that despite our different tastes in crime fiction, the two of us read it at the same time and both loved it.

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  3. Lea Johnson says:

    Wow – I loved Live By Night – imagine being able to carve your name on a window sill with a “tommy” gun without even chipping the glass! Agreement on the ending – not sure about that – it seemed a little over and out before I was quite prepared. Really looking forward to another Lehane in the coming weeks! Thanks for the review Angela.

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    • angelasavage says:

      So glad you like it, Lea. I’m working on a theory that Dennis Lehane is a Bruce Springsteen fan. Or the other way around. Or both. They both write like gods.

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