Boston's Noir Novelist Dennis Lehane Strikes Again In 'Live By Night'

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Dennis Lehane's new gangster novel is "Live By Night." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Dennis Lehane's new gangster novel is "Live By Night." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The New York Times says "Live By Night," the new gangster story by Dennis Lehane, is crime noir 101, as taught by the best of its practitioners. And we agree. It's a great read. The main character Joe Coughlin is a carryover from Lehane's 2008 epic novel "The Given Day."

The Coughlins were a police family, father Thomas an officer, Joe's brother Danny a cop. But Joe decides to go in a different direction, living on the wrong side of the law. "Live By Night" takes us from prohibition-era Boston, to cigar-making and rum running in Tampa's Ybor neighborhood, and baseball in pre-Castro Cuba.

Interview Highlights

On What's True About His Character, Joe Coughlin

"Oh, almost nothing. This book was just, a sort of pedal to the metal desire to write the richest sort of gangster story I could think of. And so, no, I didn’t stay true to almost anything."

On His Similarities To Joe

"I think that he’s one of those characters who, for whatever reason, I got him really early. I got him when he was a little boy in The Given Day and I understood him. I gave him certain attributes of myself and then I could understand other aspects of him. The reasons Joe became a gangster, necessarily, aren't too far different from the reasons I became a writer."

On The Difference Between Outlaws and Gangsters

"An outlaw is somebody who just decides he’s not going to follow the drumbeat of society. A gangster is somebody who says, ‘I’m going to be part of a society, it’s just going to be criminal.'"

On The Anatomy Of A Bad Guy

"At this point, I've studied people enough now to find ways to shade them. I don’t want the bad guy who’s rubbing his hands and, you know, snickering with glee. That doesn't interest me at all. The surprising thing about Albert White (a bootlegger, who owns a speak easy in the novel) is that Albert White may have loved his girlfriend more than Joe loved his girlfriend. And that’s one of the tragedies of the character."

Book Excerpt: 'Live By Night'

By: Dennis Lehane

Chapter Three: Hickey’s Termite

Tim Hickey once told Joe the smallest mistake sometimes casts the longest shadow. Joe wondered what Tim would have said about day¬dreaming behind the wheel of a getaway car while you were parked outside a bank. Maybe not daydreaming—fixating. On a woman’s back. More specifically, on Emma’s back. On the birthmark he’d seen there. Tim probably would have said, then again, sometimes it’s the biggest mistakes that cast the longest shadows, you moron.

"Live By Night" is the latest novel by Dennis Lehane.
"Live By Night" is the latest novel by Dennis Lehane.

Another thing Tim was fond of saying was when a house falls down, the first termite to bite into it is just as much to blame as the last. Joe didn’t get that one—the first termite would be long fucking dead by the time the last termite got his teeth into the wood. Wouldn’t he? Every time Tim made the analogy, Joe resolved to look into termite life expectancy, but then he’d forget to do it until the next time Tim brought it up, usually when he was drunk and there was a lull in the conversation, and everyone at the table would get the same look on their faces: What is it with Tim and the fucking termites already?

Tim Hickey got his hair cut once a week at Aslem’s on Charles Street. One Tuesday, some of those hairs ended up in his mouth when he was shot in the back of the head on his way to the barber’s chair. He lay on the checkerboard tile as the blood rolled past the tip of his nose and the shooter emerged from behind the coatrack, shaky and wide-eyed. The coatrack clattered to the tile and one of the barbers jumped in place. The shooter stepped over Tim Hickey’s corpse and gave the witnesses a hunched series of nods, as if embarrassed, and let himself out.

When Joe heard, he was in bed with Emma. After he hung up the phone, Emma sat up in bed while he told her. She rolled a cigarette and looked at Joe while she licked the paper—she always looked at him when she licked the paper—and then she lit it. “Did he mean anything to you? Tim?”

“I don’t know,” Joe said.

“How don’t you know?”

“It’s not one thing or the other, I guess.”

Tim had found Joe and the Bartolo brothers when they were kids setting fire to newsstands. One morning they’d take money from the Globe to burn down one of the Standard’s stands. The next day they’d take a payoff from the American to torch the Globe’s. Tim hired them to burn down the 51 Café. They graduated to late-afternoon home rips in Beacon Hill, the back doors left unlocked by cleaning women or handymen on Tim’s payroll. When they worked a job Tim gave them, he set a flat price, but if they worked their own jobs, they paid Tim his tribute and took the lion’s share for themselves. In that regard, Tim had been a great boss.

Joe had watched him strangle Harvey Boule, though. It had been over opium, a woman, or a German shorthaired pointer; to this day Joe had only heard rumors. But Harvey had walked into the casino and he and Tim got to talking and then Tim snapped the electric cord off one of the green banker’s lamps and wrapped it around Harvey’s neck. Harvey was a huge guy and he carried Tim around the casino floor for about a minute, all the whores running for cover, all of Hickey’s gun monkeys pointing their guns right at Harvey. Joe watched the realization dawn in Harvey Boule’s eyes—even if he got Tim to stop strangling him, Tim’s goons would empty four revolvers and one automatic into him. He dropped to his knees and soiled himself with a loud venting sound. He lay on his stomach, gasping, as Tim pressed his knee between his shoulder blades and wrapped the excess cord tight around one hand. He twisted and pulled back all the harder and Harvey kicked hard enough to knock off both shoes.

Tim snapped his fingers. One of his gun monkeys handed him a pistol and Tim put it to Harvey’s ear. A whore said, “Oh, God,” but just as Tim went to pull the trigger, Harvey’s eyes turned hopeless and confused, and he moaned his final breath into the imitation Oriental. Tim sat back on Harvey’s spine and handed the gun back to his goon. He peered at the profile of the man he’d killed.

Joe had never seen anyone die before. Less than two minutes be-fore, Harvey had asked the girl who brought him his martini to get him the score of the Sox game. Tipped her good too. Checked his watch and slipped it back into his vest. Took a sip of his martini. Less than two minutes before, and now he was fucking gone? To where? No one knew. To God, to the devil, to purgatory, or worse, maybe to nowhere. Tim stood and smoothed his snow-white hair and pointed in a vague way at the casino manager. “Freshen everyone’s drinks. On Harvey.”

A couple of people laughed nervously but most everyone else looked sick.

That wasn’t the only person Tim had killed or ordered killed in the last four years, but it had been the one Joe witnessed.

And now Tim himself. Gone. Not coming back. As if he’d never been.
“You ever see anyone killed?” Joe asked Emma.

She looked back at him steadily for a bit, smoking the cigarette, chewing a hangnail. “Yeah.”
“Where do you think they go?”

“The funeral home.”

He stared at her until she smiled that tiny smile of hers, her curls dangling in front of her eyes.
“I think they go nowhere,” she said.

“I’m starting to think that too,” Joe said. He sat up and gave her a hard kiss and she returned it just as hard. Her ankles crossed at his back. She ran her hand through his hair and he looked into her, feeling if he stopped looking at her, he’d miss something, something important that would happen in her face, something he’d never forget.

“What if there is no After? And this”—she ground herself down on him—“is all we get?”
“I love this,” he said.

She laughed. “I love this too.”

“In general? Or with me?”

She put her cigarette out. She took his face in her hands when she kissed him. She rocked back and forth. “With you.”

But he wasn’t the only one she did this with, was he?

There was still Albert. Still Albert.


This segment aired on October 11, 2012.


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