Julie Christine's Reviews > Live by Night

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
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really liked it
bookshelves: mystery-crime-thriller, historical-fiction, usa-historical, read-2012

There’s an element that bugged the heck out of me all the way through this novel, so let me just get it out of the way and move on, since this was a read I really enjoyed.

Despite the abundance of ideas in Live By Night, ideas which relate to the story’s era and setting: the futility of Prohibition, Jazz Age excess, bootlegging and gangland violence, racism, the Cuban émigré community in Florida - the main character, Joe Coughlin, isn’t given any real purpose or object to pursue. What are the motivating factors in Joe’s life that take him from Boston Irish middle-class comfort and respectability to sitting on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico, tied to a chair, his feet incased in a block of cement? Live By Night is more a series of events in a gangster’s life without the structure of what Robert McKee calls a “controlling idea.”

Readers of The Given Day will know Joe’s family history. The youngest son of a celebrated Boston police captain, he turns his back on a life of fighting crime to become a criminal himself. This father-son conflict theme is the focus of Joe’s internal story, but is not strong evidence as the cause of his behavior. It’s not necessary to have read The Given Day to get deliciously caught up in Live By Night, but the forces that motivate Joe are implied by the events of the previous novel (which is fantastic, by the way) and are left to take root in the overworked symbolism of a Philippe Patek watch.

Okay, okay, that’s just me. You can forget all the story structure stuff and jump on the running board of your 1929 Studebaker Dictator 6 and enjoy the ride. Dennis Lehane, who has an amazing ability to adapt his tone to fit the era of which he writes, works crime noir magic in Live By Night. This is a story of moods, settings and characters rendered in period details so exact you sweat and cower in a Boston prison cell, or sweat and drink in a Florida speakeasy, or sweat and yearn watching a beautiful woman’s hips sway underneath a threadbare skirt as if you were Joe’s shadow.

You can feel the author’s giddiness in his own story, the breathless ride he can’t wait for you to experience. He works in a bit of ruminative social psychology, really wanting you to root for the good guy gone bad who never loses his good heart. It’s an homage to the Humphrey Bogart anti-hero that makes the reader yearn for the putt-putt of a Tommy gun and a smartly –turned Fedora, while wriggling uncomfortably with the incongruous romance of the gangster’s life.

Lehane writes female characters particularly well. Live By Night offers a triangle of remarkable women, each of whom leaves indelible imprints of lust, compassion and tragedy at significant stages of Joe’s coming-of-outlaw.

Get lost in the gorgeous details and the nail-biting moments and never mind the incomplete redemption. Or that dire cement block. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Joe Coughlin.




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Reading Progress

September 30, 2012 – Shelved
December 17, 2012 – Started Reading
December 20, 2012 –
page 150
37.31% "Which genius decided to set the first line of each scene in super-tiny font? Enjoying Lehane as always, though hoping the plot makes an appearance soon. Learning, though, from the skillful way he balances backstory and character reflection with heart-stopping action."
December 23, 2012 –
page 220
54.73% "There's something about the structure of this novel that bugs me. It's a collection of scenes, but what exactly is it that Joe wants- what is his motivating force? I'm still searching for a plot, yet it's great reading..."
December 24, 2012 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
December 24, 2012 – Shelved as: mystery-crime-thriller
December 24, 2012 – Shelved as: read-2012
December 24, 2012 – Shelved as: usa-historical
December 24, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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Julie Christine Took me 5 days to read the first 250 pages and 2 hours to read the final 150. A) I love me a half-day off B) I love me some Dennis Lehane. Cracking good book. Review to come.


Michael Your review really captures a lot of the strengths of the novel's atmospherics. Very well said on your emotional responses.

I know what you mean about Joe "not being given any real purpose or object to pursue". My guess, if you were trying to boil things down to a "controlling idea" is that Joe serves to reveal how the gangster way of life is just another version of the American dream, i.e. attaining success through initiative.

The perversion of his translation of that dream toward organized crime relates to the ethos of Pretty Boy Floyd: "Some men rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen" (as put in Woody Guthrie's song). The accounting of his pathway to "outlaw" was classic: juvenile delinquent rebellion against corrupt blue blood father, mentorship in prison, and thrills of success at crime breeding ambitions and progressive moves toward bigger operations to assure more security and independence.


Julie Christine Michael wrote: "Your review really captures a lot of the strengths of the novel's atmospherics. Very well said on your emotional responses.

I know what you mean about Joe "not being given any real purpose or obj..."


Consider the "like" button clicked for this comment, Michael!

I think you nailed it- Lehane took a classic theme - the gangster (almost typed "gangsta") version of the American dream -, applied it to a classic prose style - crime noir - and set out to tell a good story. I think "The Given Day" is a more complete story and "Live By Night" more stylistic, but I enjoyed the heck out of each.


Michael Julie wrote: "...I think "The Given Day" is a more complete story and "Live By Night" more stylistic, but I enjoyed the heck out of each...."
A lot of wisdom in that summary.
Lehane teaches in a residency MFA program here in Maine, and I think I understand students to say he teaches that narrative is driven by the contrast between what characters want and what they need. I can see some of that in both novels.


Carmen Great review.


Julie Christine Carmen wrote: "Great review." Thank you, Carmen!


Leslie I agree that Joe's character was a little empty. I could not feel the sympathy for him that I felt for his hunky, heroic older brother Danny in A Given Day, which I thought was a much better book than this.


Steve Very accurate review. Nailed the missing piece for my part.


message 9: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Young I thought that the fact that Joe just drifted was his purpose. He felt empty, abandoned, and the only thing that gave him any real jolt was when he was controlling the night, being an outlaw. Not a gangster, but an outlaw.


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