A few years ago I asked best-selling author Dennis Lehane why he never sets his crime-fiction novels in Florida, considering that he splits his time between St. Petersburg and Boston — the backdrop for most of his books. I wondered if Florida’s year-round sunshine was unconducive to the dark themes he explores in books like Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River. His response:
“Sunny Florida’s far darker than most of the things I could dream up. You’ve got serial killers and assholes who throw babies from moving cars and kids who light other kids on fire and more sexual predators than you could swing a cat at. In Boston, crime is much more predictable, much more economy-based. In Florida, it’s all random, man. Crazy crime. That’s why the best Florida writers are so comic — you can’t write about what goes on down here with a straight face or else you’d go mad.”
Well, the Florida sun may finally be taking its toll on the author’s imagination, as characters from his previous novel, The Given Day, follow Lehane down to Tampa Bay in his latest novel Live By Night. Instead of exploring the kind of “crazy crime” that makes the rest of the country believe Florida is ground zero for the zombie apocalypse, Lehane sticks with what he does best, using the world of organized crime in prohibition America to fuel the plot of this genre novel.
After a botched bank robbery and a stint in the academy of crime, Charlestown Prison, Joe Coughlin takes a train down to Ybor City. There he quickly changes from a two-bit outlaw into a gangster who controls the distribution of bootlegged rum throughout the Gulf Coast. He’s perpetually under fire from all sides, including rivals, allies, cops, Klansmen, evangelists, and his own conscience.
Fans of Florida fiction will revel in Lehane’s romanticized account of Ybor’s criminal past. He delivers everything readers would expect of a gangster story set in Tampa: cigar factories, Cuban revolutionaries, streetcars, speakeasies, brothels, sweat, a raid on a ship in port, and a killing in an alligator-filled swamp.
This is genre fiction operating at its highest level, simultaneously embodying and revising the gangster genre. Take the opening sentence:
“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement.”
Not only does the line hook readers and let them know what kind of book to expect, it immediately sets the book in uncharted territory, far from the Chicago of Al Capone and Eliot Ness. Lehane keeps the action flowing like rum. He continually corners his protagonist with situations he must wiggle out of, like caging his feet in cement while surrounding him with his enemies. The only time the author’s craft seems transparent is in Coughlin’s bad habit of allowing his enemies to live.
Just as Coughlin runs into trouble by trying to be a moral gangster, the book flounders when it tries to rise beyond genre fiction. The most obvious example of this is when Coughlin waxes poetic about the difference between people who play by society’s rules, and those who choose to (title alert) live by night — a point the author repeatedly returns to. All of Coughlin’s murders are painfully justified, and at times he becomes far too close to becoming gangster-as-Robin Hood. In the segregated South, Coughlin even falls in love with a dark-skinned Cuban woman who uses much of his dirty money to give back to the impoverished community. While all of this creates a sympathetic protagonist, it provides little ground for subtle exploration of crime or human nature.
Ybor City offers an ideal playground for Lehane’s crime-wise imagination to run wild. The historic district still hosts a criminal underworld, just as it still has bootleggers' tunnels that run beneath its brick streets. Considering that Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the lead in the film adaptation of Lehane’s Shutter Island, has already acquired the book’s rights for his production company, I expect Ybor will soon become much more than just fodder for the followup Lehane plans to write to Live by Night, but the living backdrop for a feature film.
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