I wasn’t that familiar with Dennis Lehane until I read a review of his latest work, Live by Night, in the New York Times. I knew he did Irish American/Boston crime stories that became movies, and worked on The Wire, which is a pretty good pedigree as far as I’m concerned. The review for Live by Night definitely enticed me. It’s a 1920s-set crime tale taking place in shady Boston and rum-running Florida featuring police chief’s son and stick-up artist turned gangster Joe Coughlin. The review said it was the bee’s knees and the excerpt they quoted definitely pushed my buttons. However, Live by Night is actually a sequel to another of Lehane’s book, The Given Day. I’ve read them both and I have to say that this is some of the best historical crime fiction in recent memory.
It will come as no surprise to my readers that I’m a big fan of those interwar years, the late Teens, the Twenties and the Thirties. Dinosaur Jazz and Dinosaur Dust alone prove that. I’m not entirely sure why I like this era as much as I do. It could be that the lawlessness and corruption of the Twenties and Thirties represent the purest examples of America’s failure to live up to its promise — or maybe it’s just that I really liked fedoras, trench coats and tommy guns. Anyway, this love has become nearly pathological lately. I’ll watch movies and TV shows or read comics and books that I know aren’t very good — like the recent film Lawless — purely because a fedora and a tommy gun is involved. When I read that James Ellroy wanted to a series of books set in the corrupt Harding Administration — doubtlessly bringing his love of sleaze to the Twenties, which he already did with the Fifties and Sixties — I got super excited. Ellroy hasn’t created that Harding book just yet (I’m still hoping!) but Lehane kind of went ahead and did it for him.
The Given Day features the apocalyptic craziness of 1919. It’s got a few character like a good cop named Danny Coughlin who is the son of a corrupt police chief and Luther Lawrence, a reluctant Black criminal who becomes embroiled in the era’s virulent, ugly racism. It all climaxes in the Boston Police Strike which spawns one of the nastier riots ever committed to fiction. The Given Day is a very political book, with anarchist terrorists, striking union, ruthless Bureau of Investigation goons (including a young J. Edgar Hoover) and the struggles of immigrants, Irish and Italian, in the New World. It’s good stuff, like maybe a trimmed down Ragtime.
I really enjoyed The Given Day but I liked the Live By Night way more. I think it’s because Live By Night only focuses on one character — Joey Coughlin, who appears as a cheerful, optimistic little boy in The Given Day. It is a little sad to know that young Joe Coughlin is destined for a life of crime, but you can see the circumstances that led him to rebel from his family’s corrupt definition of law and order. Of course, the other side of the law doesn’t have much more honor either. Coughlin is suckered by (what else?) a dame and ends up in prison, then goes south to take over Tampa and organize rum-running for a Mafia kingpin. From there, Live By Night becomes exactly what Boardwalk Empire should have been (and maybe will become). There’s loyalty and betrayal, delicate heists, the Cuban revolutionary movement, the Banana Wars in Latin America, racial politics and the burgeoning power of the Ku Klux Klan. These are elements of the 1920s that haven’t really been explored before in popular fiction (Boardwalk Empire sort of tries) and there’s all the tommy gun/gangster action set alongside them. Through it all, Coughlin remains sympathetic. He does some monstrous things, but he’s a decent fellow at heart and his guilt consumes him and perhaps weakens him. The ending isn’t quite happy (pretty far from it, actually) but it’s probably the best sort of ending that Coughlin can hope for.
And you know what? It ends with another, younger Coughlin entering the world. It would be great if Dennis Lehane could make this duology a trilogy and turn his eye on Florida in the Fifties and the Kennedy Era. Instead of being what Boardwalk Empire should have been, it will be what Magic City should have been! Also, it’s apparently going to be Ben Affleck’s next movie. Whatever is in store for these characters and this world, I’m definitely going to be on board. We’ve all got our sweet spots, the 1920s is mine and Live By Night strikes it squarely. If you like the Jazz Age at all, you’re going to want to pick this up as well.