Live by Night by Dennis Lehane is a historical noir set in the 1920s in both Boston and Cuba (available October 2, 2012).
The title of Dennis Lehane’s new novel Live by Night sounds like it might have come right out of the Warner Brothers vault: They Made Me a Criminal (1939); The Public Enemy (1931); They Drive by Night (1940); They Made Me a Fugitive (1947). This novel is very much in the vein of Warner’s movies set during Prohibition, the days of speakeasies, near beer, flying bullets, and love on the run with a touch of film noir.
Dennis Lehane is a gifted writer (despite the fact that I can’t yet forgive Shutter Island). In Live by Night, he successfully sketches the big picture of prohibition and its fallout, yet he fails to effectively characterize its denizens. Still, I wanted to know what happened to the protagonist, Joe Coughlin.
The story reads like a movie script. The movie, I mean novel, opens: “Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard.”
And then, like many a film noir, the story is told in flashback.
While waiting for his concrete overshoes to harden, it occurred to Joe that “almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life—good or bad—had been set in motion that morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.”
Emma Gould—the femme fatale of this tale. She and Joe meet in 1926 when Joe robs a gaming room run by “Mr. Big” in South Boston. Joe and his cohorts have knocked over the wrong card game and peeved the wrong woman.
But here was Joe, supposedly the smart one, sniffing around Emma Gould like a starving dog following the scent of a cook fire.
Walk away, walk away, walk away.
Walk away Joe does not. Instead he follows Emma to a speakeasy, looks at her, and thinks:
They were so pale, her eyes, paler even than her skin. The pale of very cold gin. Her jaw and nose were both slightly pointed and dusted with freckles. Nothing about her invited approach. She seemed locked behind her own cold beautiful face.
She interrupts his thoughts:
“And while you’re thinking of things,” Emma Gould said, “think of this—they’re watching us right now. If I tug this earlobe? You won’t make the stairs.”
He looked at the earlobe she’d indicated with a flick of her pale eyes. The right one. It looked like a chickpea, but softer. He wondered what it would taste like first thing in the morning. Joe glanced down at the bar.
“And if I pull this trigger?” She followed his gaze, saw the pistol he’d placed between them. “You won’t reach your earlobe,” he said.
Her eyes left the pistol and rose up his forearm in such a way he could feel the hairs parting. She sculled across the center of his chest and then up his throat and over his chin. When she found his eyes, hers were fuller and sharper, lit with something that had entered the world centuries till before civilized things.
“I get off at midnight,” she said.
They become inseparable, but carefully. Emma Gould is the mistress of Mr. Big, the man Joe ripped off in that card game.
The noir element of the novel alerts the reader to danger. Emma Gould is no small part of that.
Joe leaves Miami for Havana to make what he hopes is his fortune and his future. And yet, there is that tub of cement and Emma Gould still waiting for him.
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