Live by Night is Crime Noir 101, as taught by the best of its current practitioners.
“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement,” Dennis Lehane writes in this perfect specimen of an opening sentence. In the same paragraph he lets Joe realize “that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life — good or bad — had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.”
There is an inviting degree of mystery to this paragraph full of foreshadowing. You can wonder what Joe did to earn himself such treatment. You can see that Joe’s life, “good or bad,” has spanned a wide moral spectrum. And you can notice that “set in motion” and “first crossed paths” are odd ways of hinting at the connection between Joe and this mysterious Emma. Cryptic, doomy, romantic yet ominous, this opening salvo signals the most important thing about Lehane’s latest: precision. All of Live By Night is written with that same degree of cleverness and care.
Live by Night is nominally a follow-up to Lehane’s powerhouse The Given Day. That was a Boston-based historical novel of epic scope and gut-wrenching emotion. This is a narrower genre piece and a Tommy-gun salute to vintage noir style. Joe is one of the last remaining members of the Coughlin family, which loomed so large in the first book’s tumultuous account of 1919. As the main story of Live by Night begins, Thomas Coughlin is still an aloof high-ranking Boston police officer and a dauntingly cruel parent. Joe is 19, taking his first steps into a serious life of crime.
Joe meets Emma Gould in the midst of a stickup in 1926, with Prohibition in full swing. He and two cronies have made the mistake of hitting a speakeasy owned by a powerful bootlegger named Albert White. Joe compounds his troubles by falling hard for Emma, who was a waitress at the speakeasy and comes from a tough Charlestown family, so unlike the elite Boston Irish Coughlins.
“Charlestown,” Joe chides himself. “No wonder she hadn’t gotten rattled with a gun pointed at her. In Charlestown, they brought .38s to the dinner table, used the barrels to stir their coffee.”
Once Joe falls (hard, of course) for Emma, he faces the further problem that she is Albert White’s girlfriend. Albert does not like being either robbed or cuckolded, so he is happy to see Joe sent to prison after a wild shootout at the new Statler Hotel. Joe’s story shocks Boston, not just because of the violence but also because Thomas Coughlin allows his officers to brutally attack Joe.
Joe, behind bars, begins to hone his powers of intimidation and takes on a cool, commanding style. He remains an immensely appealing character even after Lehane has ushered him into the land of ruthless intimidation and deadly crime.
But a funny thing happens after Joe gets out of prison and heads for Ybor City, Fla. He becomes successful enough to wonder where his old credo disappeared to. He sees something in himself “that was 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.” Joe frequently wonders about an afterlife. He questions whether he’s right to live entirely in the moment. He wonders whether the ingenuity and purposefulness of his scheming make it any better than garden-variety brutality. Eventually he will know three women who embody the yearnings that tug at him.
One is a Cuban beauty named Graciela (“Paradise,” Joe thinks upon first seeing her, “is dusky and lush and covers limbs that move like water” who values strength, not power, and wants to do some good in this world. “She believed in fairness, essentially, a concept Joe was certain had left the earth about the time the earth left diapers.”) Another, whose reputation Joe ruins in a shockingly heartless way, is reborn as a saintly evangelist but still struggles with doubt. The third, who first made the nighttime ethos look so good to Joe, is the original troublemaker, Emma.
Much of this story unfolds in Ybor City, where racism, Prohibition, bootlegging, and gangland violence collide in surprising and awkward ways. And much of it consists of well-rendered crime episodes.
Yet his idea of plain old crime is sophisticated, literary and barbed enough that it makes this book a sentence-by-sentence pleasure. You are in the hands of an expert. And you’ll know it.