As a longtime resident, I've been known to complain that there are shockingly few novels set in or around Tampa — and arguably no great ones.
Well, shut my mouth.
With Live by Night, Dennis Lehane brings the gangster saga — an American genre if there ever was one — to Ybor City in the 1920s. If you know anything about Tampa history, you know that's a natural habitat for a tale of rum-running, organized crime, institutional corruption and star-crossed lovers.
And boy, does Lehane deliver. One of the big dogs of contemporary crime fiction, he has already notched Mystic River, Shutter Island and a six-book series (including Gone, Baby, Gone and Moonlight Mile) about private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, as well as The Given Day, a historical novel centering on the 1919 Boston police strike. All were set in and around Lehane's native Boston.
Live by Night combines the crime and historical genres, picking up its main character from the family at the center of The Given Day. Joe Coughlin is the youngest of three sons of Thomas Coughlin, a rising power in the Boston Police Department and a glad-handing, hypocritical smoothy who has rocketed up from his Irish immigrant roots to a tony townhouse.
Joe was just a boy at the end of The Given Day. (Live by Night is a sequel to that book but stands powerfully on its own.) As this novel opens, he's a young man of 20 and well on his way in the career guaranteed to most disappoint and enrage his old man: He's a soldier in the Boston organization of crime boss Tim Hickey, moving up from boyhood exploits like newsstand arson-for-hire (back in the day when cities had competing newspapers) to robbery, overseeing Hickey's illegal casino and learning the bootlegging trade.
With the Volstead Act in effect, liquor is illegal across the United States, but demand for it is up. In response to that demand, organized crime is enjoying a golden age. Not an age of peace, though — criminal gangs take market competition to its most violent ends, and sometimes solid citizens get caught in the crossfire.
The first part of Live by Night sees Joe survive a badly bungled bank robbery and do very hard time in Boston's notorious Charlestown Prison. There, he proves himself not only a tough man but a wily strategist, and is taken under the wing of Maso Pescatore, a formidable crime boss. Maso has sons of his own, but they're dimwits, and he sees in Joe a possible successor — plus he savors the irony of further corrupting a cop's son.
Maso gets Joe's sentence shortened and sends him off to Tampa, where his assignment is to take over by force the rum-running operation and associated criminal enterprises of one Albert White, who was Joe's nemesis in Boston.
The reason for that enmity is Joe's greatest weakness: As tough and smart as he is, he's a sucker for love. In Boston, he was undone by a "winter-eyed," hard-boiled beauty named Emma Gould — who just happened to be Albert White's mistress, but didn't hesitate to enthrall Joe, too. She makes her first appearance in the novel's killer opening paragraph:
"Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life — good or bad — had been set in motion that morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould."
By the time Joe gets to Florida, Emma is gone. But when he steps off the train at Tampa Union Station for the first time one August morning, he sees another woman, a woman in a white blouse and skirt, "both a little threadbare. But Jesus, Joe thought, the body under it — moving under the thin fabric like something outlawed that was hoping to slip out of town before the Puritans got word. Paradise, Joe thought, is dusky and lush and covers limbs that move like water."
Paradise, it turns out, is named Graciela Corrales. She's already deeply involved in Ybor City's flourishing rum-running business — so that she can send money to support the cause of revolution in her native Cuba. She is as smart and tough as Joe, and just as much a sucker for love. The two will spar and, eventually, fall into each other's arms.
And that open interracial romance will become just one more irritant to the white side of Tampa — everything "outside of Ybor" — where judges and newspaper publishers pal around at Klan meetings, then smoke cigars with Joe and his ilk, operating under the motto that what happens in Ybor stays in Ybor, as long as they get their cut.
Lehane, who has lived in the Tampa Bay area off and on for many years, has done his homework on local history. He evokes Ybor City's multicultural, ardently political past as well as its criminal legends, like those tunnels under the streets that bootleggers and drug dealers used to move their product to the waterfront or away from police raids.
Lehane's characters drink Cuban coffee and satin-smooth rum at real and fictional restaurants and bars. Joe sometimes stays at the Tampa Bay Hotel (now the main building of the University of Tampa), and men die bloodily in its posh rooms. His first big criminal splash in town involves blowing up a U.S. Navy transport ship at the Port of Tampa to steal a load of weapons; he also takes advantage of the nearby gator-filled swamps along U.S. 41 to dispose of a body and turns the screws on a tormented sheriff in a Hyde Park Arts and Crafts bungalow.
But Live by Night isn't just a vibrant historical jaunt. Lehane is a past master of suspense and action, and his turn here from characters who solve crimes to those who commit them offers him rich territory. Joe's world is a dark and violent place where power is everything, and that power depends utterly on loyalty — which can never, ever be guaranteed.
Live by Night takes on big subjects — race, class, money, religion, friendship, family, violence — by embedding them in irresistible storytelling about a compelling, conflicted and mordantly funny man. As Joe says himself to Graciela:
" 'I've got nothing against noble people, I've just noticed they rarely live past forty.'
" 'Neither do gangsters.'
" 'True,' he said, 'but we eat in better restaurants.' "
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.