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Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

a review by Elizabeth Vinton

A chance decision to go and see a Martin Scorsese film led me to discover an amazing author.  The film of course was Shutter Island, and intrigued by the story I read the book and loved it even more. Then I bought and consumed Mystic River, another moving piece of literature that I couldn’t put down.

Dennis has a knack for creating unforgettable characters that are ordinary men and women going through some extremely tragic situations but with a spirit that drags you completely into their world.  Live by Night is another example of this author’s fine writing skills.

It is the 1920s and Joseph Coughlin, despite having a father high ranking in the police force, regularly commits acts of crime from petty to arson from a young age. During one heist he meets a tough talking woman Emma Gould, and his world changes.  His obsession with her and the series of tragic events that he endures mould him into a successful outlaw/gangster, taking him from Boston to Florida to Cuba, as he learns what he is capable of doing to survive and to thrive as a business man trading in alcohol during the prohibition era.

I consider Live by Night to be in part a fantasy novel as well as crime. The period in history that Dennis sets the story in is one so full of dramas, personalities, lifestyles and a soul that is very different to today. Whilst not always a desirable era, the luxuries the lucky few got to taste against a backdrop of deep depression and suffering makes for a rich visual world that you want to delve into and experience through the characters the author introduces you to.

Joseph Coughlin, despite the heinous acts he commits is a somewhat sympathetic character. He exists in a world of vice and immorality, where many people from many walks of life are doing what they have to do to get by. He gives second chances to those who betray him, he tries to save the fallen woman at great personal cost, and knowing that it never really balances out, he uses bad money for good. He knows that he will pay dearly for his great fortunes and whilst hitting the heights struggles internally at how he got there and what he needs to do to keep it. He questions his world, and you follow along for the ride as he makes his choices rightly or wrongly. And you find yourself wanting him to win, whatever that may mean.

Joseph is surrounded by colourful characters from the women he loves to those who work for him to those who he deals/trades with. Strange wisdom emanates from some of them and leaves you pondering just whether they are the good or the bad guys at a time where the Klu Klux Klan have representatives in the police force (and high in government) and where a father and his religion take a broken young girl and use her for their own evangelical ends.

Live by Night is a love story, a crime drama/thriller, a tale of hitting rockbottom and surviving, of a boy and his father trying to be good men in different ways and of the choices you make about how you live your life and by what rules if any.  It is a powerful novel that stays with you.

I am excited to hear that it is likely to be made into a film, as it is written very cinematically and will translate well.

A must read for over the holiday period!


Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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