Many if not most of Lehane's fans have come to him through his early Kensey Gennaro crime stories, which feature a very appealing couple working out of a Boston belfry in their fight against crime. Lehane has often characterized these as potboilers, which I think gave him the means to do what he really wanted to do, which was write novels with a little larger scope and a lot more clout.
It's funny how that goes, though, because though he did go on to write the highly praised Mystic River, which then became the equally highly praised movie of the same name, the fans kept on clamoring for Kensey and Gennaro. Lehane finally brought them back in Moonlight Mile in 2010, very much a sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone.
Many people liked that one a lot, but, though I was as eager to read it as the next person, I found the older, wiser and more comfortable pair less interesting. People's growing up isn't always their most attractive feature, especially when it comes to fiction. I think the second factor at work, though, may have been that Lehane's heart wasn't really in it anymore. What I presume he really wants to do is write historical fiction about the last century in America, because this is what he's done at this point in his career when he gets to call his own shots.
Live by Night traces the adult life of one Joseph Coughlin, though no one but his father ever calls him Joseph. As the emotionally neglected younger son of a police commissioner, Joe somewhat predictably (at least in novels) turns to a life of crime. Ostensibly a fast paced action tale about life during Prohibition as seen from the criminal side, this is actually an introspective novel about this one guy caught up on this often questionable path. Although a lot of the action revolves around how he slowly builds his Prohibition empire, the book in many ways is about limits. Joe is always looking for his own boundaries. He's a criminal, not a good guy falsely suspected of being one. And I think until possibly at the very end, he never really questions or repents of that choice. He knows or at any rate believes that he belongs with those who live by night, not the day workers of our world.
I think the introspective quality is what keeps us at a little remove from Joe, and perhaps from the book itself. We move through Lehane's meticulously researched 1920s Eastern Seaboard as in a dream. Most gangsters probably don't worry a lot whether good money can come out of bad, but Joe does. On the other hand, he's not a gangster. Or so he says. He's an outlaw. These aren't always distinctions the non-criminal can easily understand, however.
Live by Night is a very beautifully written book, and there are many scenes that seem almost cinematographic. Even this I find myself wondering a little about, though. Lehane has done very well with the movie industry, and as I've heard this book is already optioned (DiCaprio again?) it's not hard to think he may have been thinking in terms of film even as he wrote it.
I think Lehane's writing always retains a bit of the potboiler elements, sometimes deliberately so (Shutter Island, anyone?), and sometimes not. There are certainly some potboiler elements in this one, despite its greater ambitions. Some of the thuggish gangsters (because they're not all like Joe) seem pretty worn out. And don't even get me started on the prison sequence. I don't if anyone should even attempt prison scenes any more, they are so tired. But all the way through the book there are wonderful moments, like the getaway scene early on, or Joe's arrival in Tampa.
"Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement."