Dennis Lehane’s “Live by Night”

I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane and love all of his books. His latest novel, Live by Nightbook[1], which I just finished, is superb too. It evokes a whole range of emotions—from sadness to heartache to rage to laughter to joy and back to heartbreak.

We as readers expect authors to pull us into their novels right from the start. Well, Dennis Lehane does just that with his first paragraph. Even with his first line.

“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life—good or bad—had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.”

How much more intriguing can a beginning be? It raises so many questions: Who is Joe? What has he done, to deserve such a horrible death? Why is he giving credit and blame to Emma Gould for the good and the bad in his life? Who is she? His femme fatale that he can’t forget even when he’s facing his final hour on earth?

Interestingly, with no answers to these questions yet, just based on these few lines, you still get the impression that Joe is not a bad person. He’s proud, for one thing. He’s not begging his executioners for sparing him. Instead, he’s watching the water and reflecting on his life, thinking about this woman. And you’re already rooting for him. You don’t want him to die. You want to get to know him.

That’s how I felt, anyway. And I wasn’t mistaken in my opinion of Joe till the end. (A little spoiler: I cried at the end.)

Live by Night is a story about gangsters and bootleggers during the Prohibition years. It’s about unspeakable cruelty, crime, corruption, betrayal, fight for control. But it’s also about great love and friendship and trust and hope.

Joe Coughlin calls himself an outlaw. Others call him a gangster. Both “occupations” sound strange for an offspring of a renowned Boston PD captain. Well, as it often happens, Joe grew up in a dysfunctional family, in which, paradoxically, strict upbringing went hand in hand with indifference. In his early teens, Joe takes to petty crime. At twenty, he gets associated with mobsters and participates in nefarious activities. Dreaming of power and money, he gets so used to this way of life that he can’t even imagine himself living a normal “day life.” Actually he prefers “living by night”—dangerously, making money by dishonest ways. Later, he admits, “Every time you sold off another piece of yourself in the name of expediency, the easier it got.”

This is one of those stories when you sympathize with and even like a highly flawed character (not to mention a criminal) because he has goodness in him. But…not to give away spoilers, I’ll stop at this point.

I love this novel so much that I would recommend it to everyone who likes great prose, nerve-racking suspense, and unforgettable characters. Oh, and humor too.



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