Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Live by Night
Publisher: William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (2012)
Author: Dennis Lehane
Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime, Drama, Thriller
Pages: 416
Price: $16.99

Boston, 1926. Prohibition has given rise to an endless network of underground distilleries, speakeasies, gangsters, and corrupt cops. Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a prominent police captain, has graduated from a childhood of petty theft to a career in the pay of the city's most fearsome mobsters. But life on the dark side carries a heavy price. Beyond money and power, even the threat of prison, one fate seems more likely for men like Joe: an early death. But unil that day, he and his friends are determined to live life to the hilt.

Joes's dizzying journey up the ladder of organized crime takes him from the flash of Jazz Age Boston to the sensual shimmer of Tampa's Latin Quarter to the sizzling streets of Cuba. Live by Night is a riveting epic layered with loyal friends and callous enemies, tough rumrunners and sultry femmes fatales, Bible-quoting evangelists and cruel Klansmen, all battling for survival and their piece of the American dream.

I had never read a Lehane novel before. I enjoyed the film adaptations of Mystic River (2003) and Shutter Island (2010). I heard great things about Gone Baby Gone (2007) and with two more of his novels being brought to the big screen, The Drop starring Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini and this novel in 2016 I figured it was time to see what kind of literary experience his books were.

The settings are great. Each city has it's own quirks and rhythm, carefully constructed within the framework of the Prohibition era. The side characters that come with each change in venue were memorable and always seemed present to actually serve a purpose in the story. The interplay between criminals and those sworn to uphold the law seemed spot on for the period. Unfortunately the story those side characters are there to support is not new, it's a little tired with a sense of been there done that.

That 'seen it before' feeling could've been offset by a lead character that pulled the reader through the story through his charm and quick thinking. Make no mistake, Joe is fast on his feet, often staying a step ahead of those that seek his downfall. He's not particularly charming though. His motivation is revenge, and his plan is to exact that revenge by being successful and driving his competitors out of business or eliminating them completely. The issue I took with this motivation is that it doesn't really seem like the Joe we come to know through the course of the book. The usually pragmatic and well-reasoned protagonist seems more like the type of man that would cut his losses and move on, not harbor an eight year grudge.

The ending wasn't what I expected. Instead of what I thought would be the logical ending, Lehane writes several more chapters detailing things that felt rather unnecessary. Because the pace was slowed so much by these chapters the actual conclusion doesn't have the same impact that it might have. The ending felt like the motivation that was lacking through the rest of the book, but at that point the story is over.

Conclusion: The flat and at times unbelievable nature of the lead character does not make this a bad story, it simply keeps it from being a great one. Joe's machinations are still entertaining, and it's fun to see how his plans unfold. The idea that the consequences of a violent life often visit themselves on the deserving and the uninvolved alike is an important one, it's just thrown at the reader a time or two too many.

Rating: 7/10

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