Live By Night begins in the thick of the roaring 20s. The advent of prohibition has normalized corruption among the police and criminals with an explosion of illegal distilleries and speakeasies popping up all over the country. Despite the government’s best efforts to keep liquor out of the hands of the population, consumption has more than doubled. The potential to climb the ladder of organized crime has never been more attractive and Joseph Coughlin, son of prominent police officer Thomas Coughlin, sees his opportunity.
A botched bank robbery coupled with a double cross from career criminal Albert White lands Joe in jail where he promptly forms an alliance with Thomaso Pescatore, a powerful mob boss. When Joe finishes up his sentence, Thomaso sends him down south to Tampa to lock Albert out of the rum trade, crippling his presence in Boston. It isn’t long before Joe becomes an institution in South Florida with power that spreads far up the Eastern seaboard. Holding onto that power becomes a constant struggle as Joe clashes with the US army, cuban revolutionaries and the Ku Klux Klan.
The second book in Lehane’s acclaimed Coughlin trilogy, Live By Night more than lives up to its predecessor, despite being two very different books. Where The Given Day is a sprawling epic about the struggle for the average worker’s rights, Live By Night is a tightly focused study on the unstable power structure of the criminal underground. Although it can be argued that the “gangster novel” is a tired genre, it’s Lehane’s ability to craft an edge-of-your-seat thriller as well as a rich cast of characters sets that one apart from others.
In an interview with Craig Ferguson a few years back, Lehane had known that he wanted to pick up where he left off with The Given Day but knew that whiskey was the vice of choice in prohibition-era Boston. To him, that had already been done to death. After some thought, he realized that no one had really looked at the rum trade and with an old city like Tampa at the heart of the action, he felt right at home moving the setting down south. Rather than the deeply ingrained racism between the Italians and the Irish in Boston, Lehane gets to explore the institutionalized racism between the KKK and basically everyone who isn’t a native born American. This leads to some uncomfortable scenes but one specific moment where I audibly cheered at the demise of a despicable character at the hands of Joe.
Dennis Lehane is fast becoming one of my favourite living authors and Live By Night further cements him. I look forward to anything he puts out. I have high hopes for the third book in this series, “World Gone By” and have it on deck to read shortly.