Shutter Island author Dennis Lehane's latest novel, Live by Night is a thrilling dive into the 1920s-1930s gangster underworld of Boston and Florida. The self-proclaimed outlaw Joe Coughlin gets involved with the girl of one of the big local bosses, Albert White, and before he knows it finds himself jailed for a crime he did not commit. In jail, however, he becomes the "adopted son" of a bigger boss, Maso. When Joe returns to freedom, he's put in charge of Maso's Florida operation, and Joe quickly goes to work bribing the cops and fighting off the KKK in the area.
Joe lives by night, and there is always the threat of being betrayed by one of your own men. As we follow Joe's own experiences, the pendulum always keeps changing. Despite the unbearable heat in Florida, Joe builds a life and a name for himself there. However, Joe meets unexpected resistance in a drug and prostitution victim he helps rescue. The girl's father instills the fear of God in her, and she starts preaching against the potential casinos which could become legal at the end of prohibition. Joe has a lot riding on the casinos, but the girl gets the popular vote. Joe's reluctance to "turn her lights off" become fatal for him, and soon Joe finds himself on a boat, knee deep in a block of cement.
Joe always emphasizes that he lives by night, because the rules are different. "You, you buy into this stuff about good guys and bad guys in the world. A loan shark breaks a guy's leg for not paying his debt, a banker throws a guy out of his home for the same reason, and you think there's a difference, like the banker's just doing his job but the loan shark's a criminal. I like the loan shark because he doesn't pretend to be anything else..." (p. 144). However, as time goes by, Joe has to admit to himself that the boundaries between living by day and night, between good and bad, are becoming blurred: "Something was getting lost in them, something that was starting to live by day, where the swells lived, where the insurance salesmen and the bankers lived, where the civic meetings were held and the little flags were waved at the Main Street Parades, where you sold out the truth of yourself for the story of yourself" (p. 284).
The story is action packed and always entertaining. Lehane uses proper hard-boiled language which I just savour reading: "Dion Bartolo hit him in the mouth with his pistol. hit him hard enough to knock him out of his chair and draw some blood. It got everyone else thinking how much better it was to be the one who wasn't getting pistol-whipped than the one who was" (p. 5). The plot keeps thickening, and we can't help but remember the proverb "live by the sword - die by the sword".
I couldn't have read Live by Night at a better time. I recently started watching Boardwalk Empire, a brilliant "gangster" show set in the early 1920s, so I've got the social setting and context just right to get the most out of this book. A great story with everything you expect, brutal action, thrilling suspence, passionate romance and the femme fatale, as well as characters you enjoy knowing. Recommended!!!
Oh, and best of all? Not only are they making a movie version, but the crown prince of gangsters, Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing Joe! Eeeeeeeeeeeek! Can't wait! I hope there are certain scenes (uhum) they don't cut out for the movie script..!