Like E.L. Doctorow’s novel about Dutch Schultz, Billy Bathgate, Dennis Lehane’s gangster novel opens with what might be the primal gangland image: a man sitting aboard a boat heading out for open sea, chatting with the men standing around him, and waiting for the cement around his feet to harden. The guy with his feet in the tub is Joe Coughlin, the prodigal son of a Boston police captain. Joe’s story begins in Beantown in 1925, when he and some buddies are rampaging around town, pulling heists and stick-up jobs. He’s in it for the excitement, and takes pride in his amateur criminal status: He insists on a careful distinction between “outlaws” like himself and the professional “gangsters” who are taking over the big cities in the Prohibition era. Joe’s life starts getting complicated when he holds up a card game in the back room of a speakeasy that belongs to the biggest gangster in Boston, Albert White. Lehane uses the opening scene to establish the boundaries of Joe’s brainy recklessness: Once he realizes who he’s robbing, he’s smart enough to immediately figure out which door leads to Albert’s counting room, and also smart enough to leave it alone.
During the robbery, Joe meets Albert’s tough blonde mistress, and is instantly smitten. (After they exchange some fast banter—“What’s your name?” “Emma Gould. What’s yours?” “Wanted.” “By all the girls or just the law?”—he gags her, because “He couldn’t keep up with her and cover the room at the same time.”) The two begin a torrid affair, and Joe quickly decides he’s in love. But after a big job goes wrong and leaves a couple of cops dead, Joe is on the run, and in the cross-hairs of both Albert’s gang and the Boston Police Department, with his own father leading the charge.
Live By Night is a follow-up of sorts to The Given Day, Lehane’s historical novel set in Boston in 1918 and 1919, which dealt with the police career of Joe’s brother Danny. (He turns up here briefly, still shaking his head over the climactic events of the earlier novel, and on his way to becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.) But in spite of its large canvas, Live By Night has none of The Given Day’s broader ambitions. (It also has fewer guest appearances by famous historical figures, though Lucky Luciano makes a deus ex machina cameo.) There are also none of the thorny ethical conundrums that distinguished some of Lehane’s contemporary-set thrillers (Mystic River; Gone, Baby, Gone), unless readers share Joe’s angst, as he grows more and more powerful, over whether he’s still a freewheeling “outlaw” or has to admit he’s turned pro. It’s a pure wallow in violent, sexy gangster fun, and as wallows go, it’s pretty great. Lehane has become such a master at crime fiction that he can make a character who’s barely around for two or three pages seem like a star part, and he can bring two characters together and instantly establish convincing grounds for a lifelong enmity or sexual obsession. And the dialogue crackles, even when it’s overdone. Lehane was one of several high-profile crime novelists who were drafted to work on The Wire, and the biggest mystery connected to Live By Night may be why he hasn’t been working on Boardwalk Empire.