Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Live by Night

Live by Night Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dennis Lehane can write. Mystic River is the real deal, a powerful novel that made a powerful film, and I have enough respect for his short stories that I teach them in my college class.

This one, though, is Lehane by the numbers. Its capacity for real, inspired invention is kept in check by the demands of genre. Yeah it’s still pretty good – I doubt Lehane could write a truly bad book – but it’s a couple notches below his best.

That said, this still has a lot of fun to offer. Emma Gould is a terrific character, a tough-talking “dame” who makes the Prohibition gangster girl seem like a fresh invention rather than the clich├ęd type it so often is.

And the story itself is sweeping. I could do with a little less of that – we get characters who emerge, start to develop, and then get killed off – but I respect the ambition.

I know this history well, and Lehane plays a bit fast and loose with it. The role of luck in Joe’s career is also a bit hard to take. And, without spoiling too much, I have to say the excellent opening sentence is a misdirection for the overall arc of the novel.

But this moves well, and Lehane crafts fine character studies with consistent skill. And he introduces us to a range of contexts and historical details that redeem the over-the-top quality of the narrative.

I understand this is part of a series of novels Lehane has worked on around the Coughlin family. This is the second, but it clearly can stand on its own. The third seems like a direct sequel to this, but I’ll be getting to some of Lehane’s earlier work before I come back this way.

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