Here's how the new novel from crime writer Dennis Lehane begins: "Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement."
Pretty hard to stop reading after an opening line like that — at least you'd think. "It was funny, a guy came up to me the other night, and he said, 'I really loved this book once it got going,' " Lehane tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "I thought, 'Jesus Christ, read the first sentence! How much more "getting going" is it going to get?' "
Lehane is known for his gritty, Boston-based crime novels, like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. His new book, Live By Night, is set in an earlier era, during Prohibition. "I've always absolutely loved the time period," he says. "The clothes, and the cars, and Tommy guns, and maybe too much exposure to 1920s and 1930s gangster movies when I was a kid."
But it's more than that. Prohibition was an era when gangsters were romanticized and organized crime as we know it today was beginning to get organized. "It was certainly interesting to me to see ... the seeds and the growth of what we understand now as the American Mafia."
Lehane says it was difficult, though, to come up with a fresh take on the era, because the illegal whiskey trade has been depicted over and over again, most recently in shows like Boardwalk Empire. But then, on a visit to a friend in Ybor City, Fla., Lehane stumbled on a perfect setting. "Most of Florida, a building gets so much as a paint peel, and they knock it down and put up a Hooters," he says, "but in Ybor they've just kept it completely preserved, and it looks exactly like it did back in the 1910s, 1920s, as long as you remove the cars."
"And that was when I flashed on it," he continues. "I just went, wait a minute, they used to bring rum in here, they used to bring it up through tunnels, which is insane, because it's at sea level ... and I thought that's it, it's rum. The thing that nobody has been doing is rum."
So although Live By Night begins on Lehane's home turf of Boston, the action quickly moves south as Joe Coughlin (still years away from that tub of cement) goes to Florida and builds an empire running rum in from Havana.
Joe is quite young when we meet him; he's a crook, but he's got some standards and some dreams. "He's living with a little bit of a myth," Lehane says. "He thinks he can navigate these waters and remain an outlaw, without becoming a gangster. But as the book progresses, it becomes very clear that you cannot be an outlaw without becoming a gangster. Not in this trade, not in this time period."
Joe likens bankers to gangsters — a prescient speech on the eve of the Great Depression — and says he'd rather be a gangster; he doesn't want to die at a desk after a life of respectable toil. "The attraction of the gangster myth is that it's capitalism laid bare," Lehane says. "We see these guys who are doing all the terrible things that we believe that a lot of corporate America are doing, but at least they're upfront about it. And so, while that is maybe splitting hairs, I think there's something slightly more admirable about Joe Coughlin than say, you know, the guys who rig the system so that they could ... lay waste, not only to this country but to the globe back in 2008."
More important, Joe Coughlin and his buddies probably had a lot more fun than we do now — and not just because, as Lehane points out, no one yet knew that smoking was bad for you. The 1920s were also a time when "the entire country turned against the law of the land, which had to make it fun. I mean, think how much fun it was to contact a friend and say, 'We're meeting in a speakeasy tonight. Here's the password,' " Lehane says.
But in the end, Coughlin gets his comeuppance, and Lehane says he never worried about romanticizing the criminal life. "I was raised far too Catholic to think I'm going to write a gangster book in which the gangster gets out scot-free ... so I knew the book was heading down that path. I also knew that it was going to be about the love of genre, not necessarily the love of gangsters."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let me give you a sentence from a novel, the first sentence of the new novel from crime writer Dennis Lehane. Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement. Pretty dramatic, though Lehane met a man for whom it was not quite enough.
DENNIS LEHANE: It was funny. A guy came up to me the other night and he said, I really loved this once it got going.
LEHANE: I thought, Jesus Christ, read the first sentence. How much more getting going is it going to get?
INSKEEP: Dennis Lehane is famous for crime novels that became movies like "Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone" or "Shutter Island." They are contemporary stories for the most part. His new book, "Live By Night," reaches farther into the past, the era of Prohibition, bootleggers and an early brand of gangsters. Why write about the 1920s, and this particular slice of the 1920s?
LEHANE: The short answer is that I've always absolutely loved the time period. It's probably my favorite time period is American history. Anything between the two world wars. The clothes, and the cars, and Tommy guns, and maybe too much exposure to 1920s and 1930s gangster movies when I was a kid.
INSKEEP: But with that said, is it also that you're a crime writer and this is a period where crime is romanticized and also, historically speaking, you know, organized crime as we know it got organized?
LEHANE: Yes. That was - I mean it was certainly interesting to me to see - to look at the seeds and the growth of what we understand now as the American Mafia. This is usually considered the end of the independent operator decade. That to me was fun to look at.
INSKEEP: Although I was also thinking about the challenges of being a writer and delving into this period. You found an original story to tell, but I wonder if it's a challenge because we're so surrounded, we all sort of know this gangster story on one level or another. We know the backdrop anyway. Is it challenging to get away from the constant exposure to this topic and find what you really think about it and what story you want to tell?
LEHANE: Absolutely. I write the first two chapters of "Live by Night" and felt good about them, but said what am I bringing to the table that's different, because then along comes "Boardwalk Empire," then there's a sense of, okay, now it's back in the vogue, and we're still seeing the story that, you know, we're still see whiskey.
LEHANE: We're still seeing the whiskey trade. And so I said I'm just going to wait until I find the right story. And it was about a year and a half later that I went to see a friend in Ybor City in Tampa, near where I live. I live in Tampa and in Boston. And I was early, and it was a Sunday morning and I was walking around the streets of Ybor. And now most of Florida, a building gets so much as the paint peels and they knock it down and put up a Hooters.
LEHANE: But in Ybor they've just kept it completely preserved, and it looks exactly like it did back in the 1910s, 1920s, as long as you remove the cars. And that was when I flashed on it. I just went wait a minute, they used to bring rum in here, they used to bring it up through tunnels, which is insane, because it's at sea level. They used to build tunnels under these buildings and let them flood, and I thought, that's it, it's rum. The thing that nobody has been doing is rum.
INSKEEP: We should tell people who haven't read the book yet that although it begins in Boston and there are references to Charlestown, which you've written about so many times before and so well, there's a move. The character moves to Tampa. He ends up in Ybor City, and that's where the latter part of the novel takes place.
LEHANE: Yeah. The rum route, if you will, was from Havana across the Florida Strait in through Tampa. So my idea was let's do the rum route in reverse. I'm going to do Boston, and then I'm going to go to Tampa, and then I'm going to go to Havana. I wanted to take this guy, who was very northern, put him a very southern, very Latin setting and see how he responded.
INSKEEP: Let's talk about the main character here. Joe Coughlin is his name. He's a very young man when we start out here. As we go along we find that he is a crook, but he's got certain standards, things he wants to do, things he doesn't, and in fact later in the book there's a guy who says to him, you're not a killer, Joseph, which is a problem. Who is he?
LEHANE: Well, he's living with a little bit of a myth. He thinks he can navigate these waters and remain an outlaw, without becoming a gangster. But as the book progresses, it becomes very clear that you cannot be an outlaw without becoming a gangster. Not in this trade, not in this time period. So that becomes one of, I think, part of Joe's journey, is a sort of journey to overcome his own self-delusion.
INSKEEP: I wonder if I can get you to read from page 144. There's almost a little speech that Joe gives to his brother here, in which he lays out his sort of romantic notion of what a gangster is.
LEHANE: All right. You, you buy into all this stuff about good guys and bad guys in the world. A loan shark breaks a guy's leg for not paying his debt. A banker throws a guy out of his home for the same reason, and you think there's a difference. Like the banker's just doing his job, but the loan shark's a criminal. I like the loan shark because he doesn't pretend to be anything else, and I think the banker should be sitting where I'm sitting right now.
I'm not going to live some life where I pay my taxes and fetch the boss a lemonade at the company picnic and buy life insurance, get older, get fatter, talk about my squash game and my kid's grades, die at my desk, and they'll already have scraped my name off the office door before the dirt's hit the coffin.
INSKEEP: Now, when we read that in 2012, there are several layers to it. First is the reference to bankers being no better than gangsters. I assume that was intended.
LEHANE: Well, I believe that's very much an attitude that was very prevalent during the Great Depression. That speech is, I think, given about a month before the Great Depression was about to hit, but yeah, of course. I think there's a - the attraction of the gangster myth is that it's capitalism laid bare. And so we see these guys who are doing all the terrible things that we believe that a lot of corporate America are doing, but at least they're up front about it.
And so while that is maybe splitting hairs, I think there is something slightly more admirable about a Joe Coughlin than, say, you know, the guys who rigged the system so that they could kick people out of their homes, they could destroy businesses, they could lay waste not only to this country, but to the globe back in 2008.
INSKEEP: Do you feel like in some ways the 1920s were a better time?
LEHANE: I don't know if they were better. I didn't live there, but they were cooler.
LEHANE: They, you know I mean everybody smoked and didn't know it was bad for them. And it was a time where I think there was some sort of ignorance is bliss. You also had a time in which the entire country turned against the law of the land, which had to make it fun. I mean think how much fun it was to contact a friend and say we're meeting in a speakeasy tonight. Here's the password.
INSKEEP: You know, the last time that we talked on this program, we were talking about a real-life Boston mobster, Whitey Bulger, and you talked then about the romantic allure of the gangster image, but you also talked about how that image is a fraud, and that particularly in Bulger's case, he was a heroin trafficker in the housing projects that he supposedly protected.
LEHANE: Was protecting, yes.
INSKEEP: Did you worry about romanticizing crime as you wrote this novel?
LEHANE: No. I was raised far too Catholic to think I'm going to write a gangster book in which the gangster gets out scot-free. And it's very early in the book that his father says to him violence procreates violence, and the children of your violence, metaphorically speaking, are going to come back for you. So I knew the book was heading down that path. I also knew that it was going to be about the love of the genre, not necessarily the love of gangsters.
INSKEEP: Dennis Lehane's latest novel is called "Live By Night." Thanks very much.
LEHANE: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And you can read or download audio of an exclusive section from "Live By Night" at NPR Books, part of our new First Read series at nprbooks.org. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.