“This is the ugly side of living outside the law”—Esteban Suarez to Joe Coughlin
Savvy Readers, can I admit something? I’d never read anything by Dennis Lehane before Live By Night.
Outrageous, I know.
I picked up an early copy of Live by Night based on my coworkers’ praises and now that I’ve read it, I’m certainly going to stock up on Lehane’s previous titles because his writing is stellar.
Live by Night is set in Prohibition-era America and follows Joe Coughlin, a character first introduced in The Given Day, as he rises through the ranks of the organized crime world. With Prohibition has come an endless network of underground distilleries, speakeasies, gangsters, and corrupt cops. Joe, the youngest son of a Boston police captain, enjoys the thrills and spoils of working for one of the city’s most dangerous mobsters.
But his life starts to change once he meets Emma Gould…
I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but as Joe’s story moves from Boston to Ybor City, Florida, we see him rise up the ladder of organized crime to face betraying friends, changing family relationships, and ruthless enemies. Joe’s story is one of epic love, revenge, corruption, and redemption.
Live by Night won me over for several reasons. First, like many others, I’ve always been fascinated by this time period. Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties, and the Jazz Age have long been a favourite subject of mine, whether it’s in history classes, films, or books. What sets Live by Night apart from other books of this period are Lehane’s vivid portrayal of the bootlegging trade—he will absolutely immerse you in Joe’s world—and the complex themes of morality, faith, and racism that he expertly deals with.
Second, the writing is incredible. The progression of Joe’s relationships with his father, the mob boss Maso Pescatore, and Chief Figgis are fascinating to behold. As is Joe’s struggle with how easy it is to be ruthless (“What concerned him more and more about this business to which he’d hitched his star was that every time you sold off another piece of yourself…the easier it got”). There is never a boring moment. There are scenes full of action and suspense as Joe faces his many enemies, as well as some very chilling moments, namely the ones dealing with the KKK in Florida—Klan member RD Pruitt is described as “soft in the head”, but he might actually be the most terrifying character in this book.
And then, there’s the dialogue. I have post-its all over my copy indicating a witty, or moving line; an exchange that me laugh (page 164, bottom-half); or one that surprised me because I was not expecting Joe to say, or do, that (“I’m letting you keep your life…because I can’t think of a soul who would want it”).
Live by Night is receiving amazing praise from critics. The Washington Post commends the “fresh, precise language” and the New York Times calls it a “sentence-by-sentence pleasure,” telling readers that they are “in the hands of an expert.”
And really, could there be higher praise?
There are a lot of great books coming out this Fall, but I urge you to put Live by Night at the top of your reading pile. It really is stellar.
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