Dennis Lehane has described his newest book, Live by Night as an homage to the gangster genre. Taking place mostly around Prohibition time, in Tampa with the rum trade as its vocation, the story makes heavy use of the political and ethnic backdrop that defined the place and era. The revolutionary spirit sweeping through the Hispanic world has made its way through Florida and into gangster organizations seeking to profit from Cuban rum.
Joe is a small time Boston outlaw who, after a violent prison stint, is tapped by the local mob boss to shape up the rum operation in Florida. Some of the best action takes place during Joe’s prison time, but the pace barely slackens once he heads south. He slaps arrogant grifters into shape and turns a sloppily managed illicit trade into a criminal empire. Yet, we are always on his side. Joe doesn’t shy from violence, but he has a conscience: he feels bad when he destroys the people who are worth feeling bad about, and he becomes something approaching a respectable figure for his straight-dealing. When the KKK comes after him, he puts them down for good just like any other rival gang. Somehow, we always cheer for him and want him to succeed in his criminal enterprise.
Lehane explores the premise that the gangster code is no less ethical than the legal behavior of legitimate business — that a gangster who throws a man out of a window is no less ethical than a banker who throws his entire family out of his house. It’s an idealized principle that may not stand up to real-world scrutiny, but it is a large part of the appeal behind movies like The Godfather and Scarface. It also captures some of the current zeitgeist after the financial meltdown. As usual, Lehane spends as much time building character as he does with moving the plot forward with explosions. If you like your criminal epics delivered with a deft touch of artistry, Live by Night will satisfy.