Friday, April 26, 2013

Book Review: Live By Night by Dennis Lehane

Live By Night

Author: Dennis Lehane
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Date of Publication: October 2, 2012
Pages: 416 (Hardcover Edition)

     This Edgar winning novel is superb.  It transcends the mystery genre and succeeds on many levels.  First and foremost, it is a great story, expertly told.  The main character, Joe Coughlin is the youngest son of a prominent police captain.  The first part of the book is set in Boston during the 1920s as young Joe slips into a life of petty crime which escalates as he enters young adulthood.  After a two year prison stay, Joe moves on and the story shifts to Tampa, Florida.  Joe forms an alliance with Cubans, Spaniards and African-Americans to forge a crime network based on the importation of rum during Prohibition.   The final segment of the book is set in Cuba in the 1930s as American organized crime invades that island country.  Joe Coughlin is a complex character.  His many shortcomings seem to arise, in part, from his difficult relationship with his father.  There are numerous contradictions between Joe's principles and philosophy and his criminal actions.  The story weaves these conflicts and inconsistencies into a mosaic of ethical and moral conundrums.  The secondary characters are all well developed and are equally intriguing.  They include Joe's love interests, his partners in crime and his enemies.  There are many historically real characters as well. 

     The settings for this story are unique and interesting.  The descriptions of the 1920s port of Tampa and the segregated living areas are well done, as are the sketches of urban Havana and rural Cuba.  The multiple settings add another layer of interest to an already compelling story.  The women in Joe Coughlin's life also make the story sparkle.  His entanglement with a "mob moll" early on and his long term relationship with a mixed race Cuban revolutionary spice up the story immeasurably. 

      The real element that makes this novel compulsively readable, however, is the constant moral deliberations and ethical compromises which Joe and, to some extent, the secondary characters continue to confront. On many occasions he defines himself as an "outlaw" as opposed to a criminal, preferring to think of himself as "living by night, by my own rules."  

     This novel has it all: compelling and sympathetic characters, lush descriptions of unique locales, femmes fatales, action, crime, revenge and vindication.  This was one of those books I hated to finish, it was that good.  Read it and savor every page.


  1. This book has been on my shelf since last 2012 but I haven't picked it up yet. I'm happy to read it's a good book. I may have to move it up my list now.
    - Closed the Cover -

    1. Thanks for reading the review! I, too, had this in a big stack and pulled it out when it was nominated for the Edgar (which it won!) I hope that you get to it soon and enjoy it!