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LIVE BY NIGHT
by Dennis Lehane
Little, Brown, October 2012
416 pages
16.99 GBP
ISBN: 1408703157


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Boston 1926: petty thieves Joe Coughlin and the Bartolo brothers rob a gaming room, which to their surprise turns out to be run by big-name bootlegger Albert White. Joe takes a fancy to a girl serving there, Emma, and when he finds her again, they start a relationship. Unfortunately she is also White's girlfriend.

After Joe's next robbery the police are waiting: in the shootout several of them are killed. Joe proposes to get out of town with Emma and the takings, but is apprehended, beaten up and sentenced to three years in Charlestown Penitentiary. As if things weren't bad enough, his father Thomas is a corrupt Deputy Superintendent of the BPD, and Joe's incarceration offers opportunities to some very bad and powerful people.

Dennis Lehane is a fine writer and his depiction of the lives of gangsters engaged in organised crime under prohibition America is comparable with the best: Pete Dexter and Mario Puzo, for example. Joe's natural antipathy to unnecessary cruelty and his quick intelligence make him a sympathetic protagonist, but he is realistic about the fact that a good proportion of those in his profession are thugs with little brain and no conscience. And while his business is mainly rum, illegal in prohibition-era US, he knows that 'each compartment in this thing we do…feeds the other compartments.' While Joe is engaging, the book pulls no punches about the nasty and brutish nature of organised crime.

What makes this background such a fruitful field for books and films is the way life is stripped to the raw. With no safety net for the poor, living was hard and unemployment or sickness could easily bring disaster. For those living outside the law, the level of risk was even higher - imprisonment in terrible circumstances, wounding and death were common occurrence. To stay out of trouble and keep moving up, a man needs quick intelligence and a sensitive awareness to threats, and the courage to take terrible risks. When someone comes at you in a prison shower with a shiv, your capabilities are rigorously tested. In LIVE BY NIGHT, Joe demonstrates all the essential requirements for success, but remains subject to the vagaries inherent in the life of a gangster, which makes for plenty of excitement.

Lehane's previous books including MYSTIC RIVER, SHUTTER ISLAND and THE GIVEN DAY have enjoyed critical acclaim, and from this latest outing it is easy to see why. The wide cast of characters, and there are some pretty strange specimens of humanity included, are depicted economically and with panache. The handling of the action is sure and the dialogue crisp and spare. Altogether a very confident telling of an engaging story, and a pleasure to read.

§ Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, October 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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