Dennis Lehane puts a pleasant spin on the gritty gangster in his novel “Live by Night.” Joe Coughlin plays the smart and guarded outlaw that doesn’t want anyone to call him “Joseph”. That right and privilege is reserved for his father, with whom he has a strained relationship burdened by the ghosts of things undone and conversations had too late. Nevertheless, acquaintances want to call him Joseph—the gangster, Maso, the Cuban goddess, Graciela—all want Joe to be Joseph. Perhaps they know on some spiritual level that he’s more than a one syllable diminutive. Rather, they realize that Joseph will do what his name means in the Hebrew—he will add. Throughout the novel, Joseph Coughlin added his quick wit and charm to a mixture of thievery and debauchery, slipping several times from the grips of danger and moving with great pomp to a position of power. Ultimately, Coughlin made his abode among hustlers and mob bosses and cemented his position in the town of Ybor, Florida. However, he soon learned that his struggle for success, his quest to be the perfect outlaw, led to several losses. Would he lose the most important thing in the end?
Dennis Lehane describes a character in a very interesting way. Pale eyes. Eyes so blue or gray or off colored that they exude some sort of power. Like the person who owns those eyes has a certain authority about them. Their gaze might as well be a weapon of warfare. Once caught in it, you lose yourself and nothing else seems to matter. Lehane also brings a certain authenticity to Graciela the heroin, with the threadbare dress that hugs her curves, her sweet dark skin, her beauty. Yet, her hands are hard from rolling cigars. So how do you tease apart that soft thing that can caress you and give you pleasure from the idealist with hands hardened by day labor? You don’t separate the two. You leave them be and realize that that toughness somehow make her more beautiful.
As I read the story, I found myself listening to the early 1900s jazz; I could smell the strength of Cuban cigars. And the pain that you know a good crime novel must contain comes out at you. Sometimes, it makes you turn away. I discovered that Joe was just an outlaw. Joseph, however, was a gangster. Reading the novel, you the sense the joy he felt on his ascent as well as the sadness from things sacrificed. You actually get lost in another place, in another time. You’re surrounded by the smell of citrus and cigars. You dip from surprising gunshots. From the safety of the page or the e-reader space you witness horrific deeds. And still, somehow, you laugh at times because Lehane is just that entertaining.
James Fant is an author of inspirational romance and suspense. He lives in South Carolina, where the mountains and the beaches have befriended him. His books include:
An Ode for Orchids
Close the Door
The Secret Branch
The Mended Fence