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Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night is a sprawling historical crime novel, set variously in Boston, Tampa and Cuba and spans nine years in the life of gangster Joe Coughlin (“I’m an outlaw, not a gangster” he protests more than once.  He’s a gangster.).  Joe, the son of the deputy superintendant of the  Boston Police Department, is a small-time hood whose gang robs a poker game of Albert White, the local mob boss.  At the robbery, Joe meets and falls hard for the wisecracking Emma Gould, White’s mistress.  She becomes his lover and raison d’etre until she presumably dies in a shoot-out between Joe’s gang and the cops.

Joe’s father disowns him for being involved in the cops’ deaths.  Joe does hard time and while in the clink meets and joins forces with Maso Pescatore, another mob boss at war with Albert White.  Once Joe is free, Maso sets him up in Tampa to corner the rum market during prohibition.  Joe is a great success, makes tons of money for Maso and himself, and meets a Cuban woman who becomes his commonlaw wife and bears him a son.  There are many twists and turns in allegiances and no honor among the thieves, and a surprise at the end that isn’t really surprising: Emma Gould is still alive.  I won’t disclose the ending.

Although I’m not a huge fan of historical novels, I wanted to like this book for several reasons: Dennis Lehane is a terrific writer and I have read all of his books (including The Given Day, another historical novel); it takes place during the prohibition era, and the lawlessness and corruption that reigned during that time make for compelling reading; it shows Mystery Writers of America considers a variety of sub-genres under the general mystery umbrella for its awards.

But wanting to like a novel is not enough.  The story has to deliver on its premise and satisfy the reader’s surrender to the writer’s imagination.  Unfortunately, this story does not.  Some of the difficulty with feeling satisfied can be found in the third person point of view Lehane uses, an understandable choice in order to provide reams of information about the history of prohibition and descriptions of the cities where the story takes place.  This point of view is distancing, however, and I never felt an emotional connection to Joe and his struggle.  Many of the characters are well-drawn and interesting, but the story is Joe’s and his evolution does not seem to take center stage.  The novel would have benefitted from a firmer editor’s hand, too.  I am first and foremost a reader, but I look forward to seeing what Ben Affleck does when he turns this novel into a movie.

On a scale of 1 to 10, this novel rates a 5.

 

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