Dennis Lehane talks about 'World Gone By,' why we love outlaws

Published March 4, 2015

"I'm done with Tampa," Dennis Lehane says.

"Somebody else please pick up the Tampa mantle. There's so much to do."

Lehane's new novel, World Gone By, to be published Tuesday, is the last in his trilogy about fictional Boston-born gangster Joe Coughlin and the second set in Tampa, mainly Ybor City. Its predecessor, Live by Night, took place there during Prohibition; World Gone By picks up Coughlin's story in 1942.

Most of Lehane's previous 11 bestselling novels were set in and around his native Boston, including Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island and The Drop, all made into films, as well as the first in the Coughlin family trilogy, The Given Day.

So why did Lehane make the literary move south?

"I always thought if Boston and New Orleans had a baby, it would be Ybor City," he says, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles.

Lehane, 49, has spent a lot of time in the Tampa Bay area. He's an alumnus of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg (and co-founder of its Writers in Paradise conference) and has lived off and on in the area over several decades, dividing time between Boston and Florida. He and his wife, Angela Bernardo, had a home in St. Petersburg until last year, when they moved with their two young daughters to Los Angeles.

Lehane says that, although he has set two historical novels here, he doesn't consider himself an expert on the area. "I felt I had exhausted my capabilities as a tourist. I did it by sticking to Ybor. Leave there and I would venture into the South, and I didn't want to do that."

Ybor City and Tampa, with a long history of organized crime, proved a perfect backdrop for a gangster epic. In World Gone By, real-life mob figures like Santo Trafficante Jr., Carlos Marcello and Meyer Lansky have cameos, but Coughlin and most of his associates are fictional.

Although much of his earlier fiction focused on people who solved crimes, "I always wanted to write a gangster novel," Lehane says. In Coughlin he has created a classic American antihero. "They're two sides of a coin. They're men who are capable of terrible, terrible things. But then there's the reason we all love outlaw stories: He's pretty f------ cool.

"If you're going to be pulled out of a car by some scary, scary guys, you want Joe Coughlin to be your father."

That last is a reference to a scene in World Gone By involving Coughlin's young son, Tomas. Their relationship, and how it changes Joe, is key to the story.

"It's always been a big theme in my books, fathers and sons," Lehane says. "It's such a recurrent theme I gave up fighting it: What is the definition of family that means the most to you — the one you're born into or the one you choose?"

Coughlin long ago rejected his own father and chose the mob as his family, but now he has a child, another biological family, and it changes everything, Lehane says.

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"He's in a business built on this lie: We don't hurt family. But he realizes, hey, we sure do create a lot of widows and a lot of orphans."

So now he is "a guy who is running as fast as he can away from himself." From the book's first scene, Coughlin is haunted by the ghost of a boy he doesn't recognize. It's one of the most powerful images in the book, but Lehane says it wasn't even part of early versions. "I wrote two drafts without the ghost and without that ending.

"Instead of what had to happen, I was writing what I wanted to happen."

Lehane's gangster saga will soon find its way to the movie screen. Filming of Live by Night is scheduled to begin this summer "last thing I heard," Lehane says. Ben Affleck will be playing Coughlin as well as writing and directing. The cast also includes Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana and Elle Fanning. Filming locations have not been announced.

The author isn't directly involved in the film, but he is friends with Affleck, who co-wrote and directed Gone Baby Gone. "He's a great director, it's a great script. It has my blessing."

Lehane is busy with several television pilots for various networks and was one of the writers on a movie project to bring Florida crime fiction icon Travis McGee, hero of 21 books by John D. MacDonald, to the screen. "I put Travis McGee in the script. In the scripts I read Travis McGee did not resemble Travis McGee. This is a character I know very well, so my whole point was to put him in there. So when they read it, they all said, ah, that's what was missing."

Fans of Lehane's books need not worry, though, that he won't be writing more. Indeed, he's "already deep into" writing another trilogy, set in Boston in the very recent past.

"Boston has had a really transformative rise in my lifetime," he says. "I'm old enough to remember Dirty Boston. When I was born, the city was in receivership. Now it's back to being the City on the Hill. I wanted to write about how that happened."

The main character, he says, is a cold-case police detective who sounds like just the kind of conflicted, complex character Lehane writes so well. "His nickname is 'the Mop and the Bucket,' because he's the guy who comes in and cleans up afterward" when crimes become coverups.

"But there's this case his conscience won't let him let go of."

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.