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Originally published Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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Lehane's 'Live by Night': an ex-con's destiny in mid-20th-century Cuba

Dennis Lehane's new novel, "Live by Night," the story of a Boston ex-con who becomes entangled in the violent side of mid-20th-century Cuban politics, is trademark Lehane: suspenseful, bittersweet and sympathetic to the vulnerable.

Special to The Seattle Times



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'Live by Night'

by Dennis Lehane

Morrow, 416 pp., $27.99

Dennis Lehane made his bones with an addictive series of detective novels set in working-class Boston. But Lehane has always aimed to be a full-service novelist, and he's written brilliantly in several genres, including a psychological thriller, "Shutter Island," which Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio made into a gripping, unsettling movie.

Then, in 2008, Lehane delivered a calling card that boldly announced his entry into the world of literary thrillers: "The Given Day," a sweeping historical epic with a backdrop of the 1918-19 flu epidemic, corrupt politics, racism, a police strike and (not least) baseball.

Lehane's intense new book, "Live by Night," has many of the same attributes that make his previous work stand out: sympathy for the vulnerable, a fast-moving storytelling style, and a gift for conveying the most bittersweet, ironic and tragic of moments.

Set during Prohibition era, the new book's scope stands midway between the small scale of the early detective books and the grand sweep of "The Given Day." It explores some of Lehane's enduring themes: family ties, love, friendship and loyalty. But it's also simply a great story — an engrossing tale of well-plotted revenge in the world of organized crime. (In a recent interview, Lehane commented, "Since I was a little kid, it was my dream to write a gangster book, and this is it.")

Two members of the Coughlin family — a father and son, both Boston cops — were central figures in "The Given Day," and both have small roles in the opening sections of "Live by Night." But the focus is on the Coughlins' second son, Joe, who turns criminal while still a teenager.

Joe's luck goes bad in the aftermath of a robbery. He falls hard for bewitching Emma Gould, the mistress of a prominent gangster, Albert White — only to see her apparently die in a car accident.

Joe's fortunes further drop when a shootout results in a long stretch for him in Boston's terrifying Charlestown prison. (Two of the real-life prison's most famous inmates, Sacco and Vanzetti, have just been executed when Coughlin arrives.)

Then Joe's fortunes change. He survives prison largely because another inmate takes him under his wing. This is Thomaso "Maso" Pescatore, White's archrival — a bootlegging kingpin who continues to run his operation from jail.

Once Joe is out of the slammer, Maso sets him up with a plum position: establishing a lucrative rum pipeline from Havana to points north.

Joe relocates to Florida and prospers due to business smarts and (only occasional) ruthlessness. Still grieving for his lost love, he encounters a fiery Cuban expatriate and revolutionary, Graciela Corrales, and they become an intensely devoted couple.

In an especially vivid set piece, Graciela convinces Joe to mastermind the daring robbery of a weapons cache from an American warship. Her dedication to Fulgencio Batista's (real life) overthrow of Cuban strongman Gerardo Machado is a factor in the couple's relocation, late in the story, to Havana. There, Joe — essentially a decent man — tries to wash away his former sins by bankrolling good deeds.

Lehane's prose mostly sticks to his usual clear-eyed, unpretentious style, although it's occasionally a little overripe (appropriate, perhaps, considering the tropical locales of the book's second half). But that's a minor complaint. Overall, "Live by Night" is a superb and deeply felt story, set in a period that continues to fascinate.

Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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