Boston native Dennis Lehane has had a particularly energetic career in fiction, penning his first book, A Drink Before the War which introduced the recurring characters Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. It won the 1995 Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel. The series has gone on to much general satisfaction, although Lehane took a break for a few years before coming back with the most recent in the series, Moonlight Mile (Lunchbox review here). He’s also gone standalone and historical. Several books have been made into successful movies (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island). And although he’s been an Edgar finalist twice previously, it was for writing the TV series The Wire that Lehane won an Edgar (Best TV feature or mini-series).
Now his book Live By Night is up for Best Novel. It’s the second book in the historical crime saga featuring the Coughlin family, set during Prohibition. The novel features Joe Coughlin, who rebels against his police chief father by turning young to an exciting life of crime. The book covers a tumultuous decade, during which Joe runs afoul of the law, falls in love with a mobster’s girlfriend, uses his smarts to rise to a position of power, takes over Tampa, forms an unlikely alliance, falls in love and marries a Cuban woman, has a family, is exiled, makes a comeback, and his wife is murdered. It’s a sprawling story with many characters, filled with action and a noir attitude. It’s no surprise that Ben Affleck’s making the movie.
This is a tough one for me to review and rate! I like Dennis Lehane as an author, and there was a lot about Live By Night to admire. I was interested in Joe Coughlin as a character; he’s a romantic hero in the classic sense, rejecting the norms of society – first, the norms of his “law-and-order” father, then the norms of his new society, the mob. (Demonstrated by his ability to work well with others outside his own racial/ethnic/cultural background.) His personal growth and the love story were strong positive aspects of the book. And of course, the language and visual imagery is first-rate.
Ultimately, it’s the broad scale of Live By Night that is its undoing for me, when it comes to this personal review and ranking. The characters are well-drawn, but there are just too darn many of them. The violence is shocking, but there’s so much of it, the impact is lost. The plot takes many a twist and turn, but it’s easy to lose interest along the way. Simply put, some folks are going to absolutely adore this book, but I’m not one of them.
So time for the final word on the Literary Lunchbox Ranking for the MWA Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Novel. Since Live by Night is not battling for top place, I’m going to use personal preference as the basis. I’m putting it squarely between Sunset and The Lost Ones.
I’m calling the Best Novel contest for Gone Girl. We’ll see, come May 2, if i’m right. Here’s the final ranking: