Live by Night

Written by Dennis Lehane
Review by Jeanne Greene

Live by Night is the powerful story of a kid from a good family who becomes a petty crook, goes to prison, and learns to be a criminal. There are thousands like that. But Joe Coughlin is one of Lehane’s most memorable characters, a man as real as the time and the city he lives in: Boston in the 1920s, the era of Prohibition.

Joe is good-looking and capable. In different circumstances, we’d call him smart — he could go to college — but he chooses a life of crime. We sympathize at first because of his background. Joe’s mother is dead. His older brothers are absentees with their own problems. His father, Deputy Police Commissioner Thomas Coughlin, is a powerful man but, as Joe knows, he has ties to both sides of the law. Coughlin tries to help Joe after the fact, but ultimately he is as capable of cruelty as the crime lord who mentors Joe, and the lesson is the same.

Joe adores the beautiful Emma Gould. Even knowing she’s a weakness he can’t afford, he foolishly risks his life for her. When he becomes as bad as the worst of his enemies, strong-arming himself to the top of the Gulf Coast rum-running trade, he loses our sympathy — but by then, Joe can’t count on anyone who isn’t afraid of him.

Think you can guess how this ends for Joe Coughlin? Keep reading. The violence should come as no surprise to readers, but the ending will.

Live by Night may not be a good choice for late night reading. Otherwise, Lehane has it down. Plot, character, or setting can’t be faulted in this riveting story of love, betrayal, and crime, which is highly recommended.