“Live by Night”: A Book Review

Note: No spoilers forthcoming in this review. 

There’s a saying writers hear a lot and I’m not quite sure where it originated but it’s simply, “Kill your darlings.” In other words, don’t be afraid to take chances in your story and kill off a character (I’d say it extends to sentences, words, phrases, descriptions and scenes, too), even if you love them. Because the whole point is to stir up emotions in a reader.

Well, without spoiling anything, I’d say Dennis Lehane masterfully employed that concept with his book, Live by Night, which won the Edgard Award for Best Novel of the Year in 2013.

To me, it reads like the film Goodfellas, but set back in the late 1920s and early 1930s at the height (and later decline) of prohibition in Boston and Tampa. Joe Coughlin, our protagonist or rather, our main character, reminds me very much of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in the aforementioned Goodfellas.

Joe just wants to be free to do what he wants as an “outlaw,” and not be constrained or confined to an ordinary existence, hence “living by night.” There are not set rules governing his trade (selling illegal rum). And that’s where the excitement lies. Anything could and will happen.

There was a review that called this book a “tour-de-force,” and I’d agree. It’s extensive with quite a few settings covered from Boston to Tampa and everything in between, to many years and characters, but it moves along at a nice pace with Lehane’s masterful, potent prose.

And most significantly to me, Lehane managed to weave a beautiful and touching romantic angle (well, two) into this story without it feeling forced or contrived. It felt natural and believable. Not many write crime fiction better than Lehane or scene-setting moments, but Lehane surprised me with his ability to render tender moments between the violence and chaos.

Well-worth checking it out if you want something that’s a bit more “high-brow” crime fiction than what you’d usually come across. (And that’s not a knock on those books, as I enjoy them, too, but Lehane’s in another class.)

Also, it seems that Warner Brothers is adapting this into a film starring Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio for an October 7, 2016 release. That’s good news to me. It could be excellent, especially with Affleck directing as well.

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