"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.