Dennis Lehane goes from strength to strength. He is best known for the film adaptation of his novel “Mystic River,” the Oscar – award winning and thought provoking film of several years back, and of the more recent “Shutter Island.” He has also won awards for his part in script writing for the cult HBO series “The Wire.”
The son of Irish parents from the last great wave of 50’s emigrants, he shot to fame in 1994 with “A Drink Before the War” the first of five highly acclaimed detective novels based in Boston, one of which, “Gone Baby gone” became yet another successful film .
Lehane has now embarked on a series of novels set around the Prohibition Era and after, of which “Live by Night” is the second; a third is promised. The earlier novel, “The Given Day” featured the Boston Police Strike of 1919 and events in Tulsa Oklahoma prior to the infamous race riots there in 1921 and was described by the New York Times as a majestic fiery epic. The story revolved around Boston police captain Thomas Coughlin and his family.
“ Live by Night” again features the Coughlins, with the third son Joseph as the central character. Joseph is a career gangster, surviving hard time in jail, to emerge and work with members of the Italian and Irish mobs in Boston and then in Tampa during Prohibition, where he masterminds the supply of liquor, including Cuban rum, north to New England. His first Irish gangster boss sets the scene early on, telling Joseph in his casino that “the people we serve…they visit the night. But we live in it. They rent what we own.”
Later, post Prohibition, Joe relocates to Cuba, where much hope is being invested in a reforming Colonel Batista who kicked out the previous dictator (that same Batista whose corrupt regime was ousted in 1959 by Castro).
There’s violence in plenty, but this is counterbalanced by love stories, one unrequited, a complex father-son relationship and an emerging different dimension to Joseph, that of local philanthropy, both in Tampa and Cuba.
The work transcends the mere gangster or crime novel and has been receiving rapturous reviews, some critics comparing Lehane with Steinbeck and Chandler and describing him as among the most accomplished and versatile American novelists. The characters are finely drawn, the era is superbly recreated with great attention paid to the historical detail.
The broader social issues of the time are explored, particularly in the portrayal of 1920’s Tampa and the impact of the Great Depression, with ten thousand bank failures and thirteen million jobs lost in less time than our own recession. Race relations loom large, particularly in Tampa’s mixed ghetto of Ybor City, where Cubans, African –Americans, and Italians, rich and poor, are thrown together, while outside, the local whites and the Klan ( providing muscle) stare balefully on.
The book is a great read and can stand alone or as part of what is shaping up to be a major historical saga