Friday, June 22, 2018
Books

In Ybor gangster tale 'Live by Night', Lehane 'lets it rip'

"I was looking for my real gangster book," Dennis Lehane says. He found it on (and under) the streets of Ybor City.

The result is Live by Night, Lehane's 10th novel and his first set mostly in Florida. His earlier books, including Mystic River, Shutter Island and his six-book series about private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, are set mostly in and around his native Boston.

But Lehane has a longtime connection with Florida. He earned a degree in creative writing from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg and an MFA from Florida International University in Miami. For the last several years, he and his family have lived for part of the year in St. Petersburg, the rest in Boston.

"Florida is a very distinctive place," Lehane says, "but for the most part it's been well handled by people like" Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey and Edna Buchanan. "They have the pulse of the wacky, strange, environmentally raped Florida. So why should I do it? They've got it. It's covered."

But there was that idea for a gangster novel, picking up characters he had created for his 2008 historical novel The Given Day, set in Boston almost a century ago.

One of them, Joe Coughlin, a young boy in The Given Day, becomes the compelling, complex main character in Live by Night. "Joe was always going to be written about as a gangster," Lehane says, "but the question was, how fast do I get to his epoch?"

He considered writing a book about some of the other characters in The Given Day first. "Then Joe just kind of talked to me again: 'F--- it' — pardon my French — but he said, 'Jump to the 1920s. Let's get this done.' "

The idea of a gangster novel set during Prohibition clicked when, Lehane says, "I knew I didn't want to do whisky," because that part of the bootlegging trade has been widely covered in everything from The Great Gatsby to Boardwalk Empire. "So I thought, rum. And well, that was Florida."

Specifically, that was Ybor City. "Ybor to me then was Casablanca — not the real place, the movie," Lehane says. "All the radicalized unions, the gun runners, the rum runners, the Cubans, the Italians, the Spanish, the blacks, just this totally stratified society." Ybor City also had a colorful history of crime that included stories of the network of tunnels under its streets used by smugglers to move the goods — tunnels Joe visits in Live by Night.

As part of his research for the book, Lehane toured Ybor City with local author Scott Deitche (Cigar City Mafia and The Silent Don). "We took the gangland tour. He's mostly about the Trafficante era, but he knows some stories about the old days, too." (The family led by Santo Trafficante Jr. for many years controlled organized crime in Tampa and Cuba. )

Lehane walked the neighborhood himself, taking photos and studying historic markers. "The great thing about that section of Tampa is it has a lot of plaques. This building was here, Jose Marti spoke here. You don't have to try to figure out if the building was there in 1925. That ate up a lot of what otherwise would have been legwork.

"And then I just let it rip in my imagination."

Live by Night was optioned for film by Warner Brothers months before it was published, with Leonardo DiCaprio to star. (DiCaprio also starred in the film version of Shutter Island.) "They're going full throttle," Lehane says. "I think they want a fast turnaround."

Lehane isn't done with Joe Coughlin or Tampa. "I'm well, well deep into the next book. It's about Joe in the mid '40s, in mid World War II. It's set in Tampa and Havana, with a trip back up north. It will have more Ybor, some Davis Islands, Sacred Heart Church downtown."

Many of Lehane's previous main characters have been on the daylight side of the law, although, he points out, "The main character of Mystic River has a gangster heart."

He has always, he says, found a rich fictional source in corrupt or conflicted characters, as well as a personal resonance. "I don't think I'm very good at clinging to societal mores myself. I don't think I'd be a writer if I was."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

Comments
Review: Look inside the tent of a Gibsonton-based sideshow in Tessa Fontaine’s memoir ‘The Electric Woman’

Review: Look inside the tent of a Gibsonton-based sideshow in Tessa Fontaine’s memoir ‘The Electric Woman’

Grief can unhinge us, disconnect us from our daily lives, make us do things we’ve never done. Grief made Tessa Fontaine run away and join the circus.To be more exact, the sideshow: World of Wonders, the last traditional traveling sideshow in the coun...
Published: 06/21/18
5 fiction writers who've turned their attention to Donald Trump

5 fiction writers who've turned their attention to Donald Trump

He might not have intended it, but Donald Trump has been good for book publishing.
Published: 06/15/18
What’s Neal Thompson, author of ‘Kickflip Boys,’ reading?

What’s Neal Thompson, author of ‘Kickflip Boys,’ reading?

Neal ThompsonFor Father’s Day, we checked in with Neal Thompson from his Seattle office. In his new book, Kickflip Boys, Thompson weaves together a story on raising his two independent, passionate sons while giving us an honest look at the underbelly...
Published: 06/15/18
What is Jen Waite, author of the memoir

What is Jen Waite, author of the memoir "A Beautiful, Terrible Thing," reading?

Jen Waite It is June. Romance and weddings are in the air, and with that comes the paperback release of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite, 33. The book, based on Waite’s heartbreaking wedding story, fi...
Updated one month ago
Review: Jake Tapper’s ‘Hellfire Club’ a fictional thriller sharpened with real 1950s politics

Review: Jake Tapper’s ‘Hellfire Club’ a fictional thriller sharpened with real 1950s politics

Washington, D.C., is a city in crisis, the operations of the federal government all but paralyzed by the conspiracy theories of a powerful politician who behaves as if the bounds of protocol and decency don’t apply to him. As he distracts the nation,...
Updated one month ago
What’s Helen Rappaport reading?

What’s Helen Rappaport reading?

Helen RappaportWhile delving into archives and researching her new book about the murder of the Russian imperial family 100 years ago, The Race to Save the Romanovs, Rappaport celebrated the digital age. "I am able to go back so far in time and look ...
Updated one month ago
Review: Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’ explores a state beyond the boundaries

Review: Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’ explores a state beyond the boundaries

In "Flower Hunters," one of the stories in Lauren Groff’s stunning new book Florida, a character gets a reader’s crush on 18th century explorer William Bartram, an early chronicler of the state’s flora and fauna: "She’s most d...
Updated one month ago
Notable: Books for the beach

Notable: Books for the beach

NotableBooks for the beachSuit up: It’s time for a few new books built for vacation reading.By Invitation Only (William Morrow) by Dorothea Benton Frank is the latest serving of Frank’s trademark warm humor and engaging characters, set around two wed...
Updated one month ago
Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

NightstandJudy BlundellSince it’s Memorial Day weekend, we decided to touch base with Judy Blundell, whose new book is High Season. The novel’s protagonist is Ruthie Beamish, director of a small museum who, to make ends meet, rents out her seaside ho...
Updated one month ago

Events: Pulitzer winner Jack Davis to discuss ‘The Gulf’ at Oxford Exchange

Book TalkUniversity of Florida historian Jack E. Davis (The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea) will discuss and sign his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at 1 p.m. May 27 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission $5, applicable towar...
Updated one month ago