Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #3: Live By Night by Dennis Lehane

A new book by Lehane with a different flavor. It starts in Lehane’s Boston during the Roaring 20s, where prohibition is in full swing, and Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a Boston police captain, has chosen the path of easy money, easy women and working for the mob to get where he wants to go. But the young romantic falls for the favorite girl of mobster Albert White, and he gets set up. A bank robbery “goes wrong,” a cop is killed, and 20-year-old Joe takes the fall, getting a multi-year sentence in one of the worst prisons around. As the son of a police captain, his days are numbered until he hooks up with old man Maso Pescatore, a vicious boss in the Italian mafia who recognizes Joe’s life as currency and offers mob protection for the son in exchange for the favors of the father. Maso plans to expand his turf into the rum-smuggling of the Florida coast, and recognizes that Joe’s smarts make him the perfect manager for his new enterprise, once he gets out of prison.

Joe heads down to Florida and the story at this point takes on a different coloration, with Joe having to learn fast how to survive the tropical political climes, the mob turf wars, the Ku Klux Klan, cross-cultural tensions, and organized corruption on a mass scale. He not only survives but rises to the top, dramatically expanding his influence and amassing huge fortunes, both for himself and for the mafia. But it’s too good to last, and Joe’s refusal to ultimately take a back seat in the empire he has helped create–and his resistance to the escalating violence that empire now demands of him–puts him back in the crosshairs of the mob.

Joe is a fascinating character, with a youthful exuberance coupled with tons of charm and occasional twinges of conscience to leaven the otherwise ruthless and amoral streak that runs a mile wide in the guy. His saving grace is Graciela, a lovely Cuban woman whom he eventually marries and fathers a child with. She helps him discover his better half, but the reader knows that sooner or later, Joe will have to pay for the life he has led.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find this book to have the subtly-drawn nuances of both plot and character that Lehane is so famous for. It was an exciting and fun read, to be sure, but I found myself often wondering why I was rooting so hard for a mobster just because he was less bloody-minded than the guys he worked for. Joe makes “soft” decisions in the management of his criminal empire, to be sure, but his redemption by Graciela never really rings true and the end, when it comes, is a sad but foregone conclusion.