Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Review of Live by Night by Dennis Lehane (2012, Abacus)
Most crime stories take place over the course of a few days or weeks. Live by Night is much more ambitious in its scope, following the life of Joe Coughlin from small time crook to feared gangster boss over a ten year period, tracing his ups and downs, and exploring themes of family, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, love, compassion, and violence. Despite the fact that Coughlin’s life is full of incident, Lehane manages to pack an awful lot into 500 pages without ever rushing or skimping on detail. Indeed, a real strength of the book is how he manages to deal with the temporal shifts across years and incidents to create a smooth overarching narrative that always keeps the reader engaged. It took me a little bit of time to warm to Coughlin and the story, but the story soon becomes compelling. And whilst there are plenty of twists and turns, the plot is coherent and does not rely on coincidence or plot devices, and does not get sidetracked with subplots. The characterisation is well penned, especially Coughlin, who develops and matures over time, his friend Dion, Graciela, Albert White and Maso, who are all alive on the page and have back stories, and even the minor characters have some depth. Throughout there’s a good sense of time (prohibition period), place (Boston, Tampa and Cuba) and social context (race, politics, crime). If you’re looking for a 1920/30s gangster story with some heart and depth, or a crime story that is expansive in scope, then Live by Night will be just your ticket.