“Before the small war broke them apart,” Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By begins, “they all gathered to support the big war.”
From there, I sensed I was in good hands with this fluid, serpentine, and eloquent historical crime novel, the best work of fiction I’ve read so far in 2015.
Lehane is the author of, among many novels, Gone Baby Gone, and was also one of the writers for The Wire. This book is the last in a trilogy focusing on the life and times of Joe Coughlin that began with The Given Day and Live By Night. I’ve not the read those first two—in fact, this is the first Lehane novel I’ve read--but I never once felt at sea with World Gone By. If this is your first Lehane, you’re in for a treat.
The novel opens in 1942. World War II has just begun. Joe Coughlin has evolved from Boston street gangster to consiglieri to the Bartolo gang, the number-one crime family in Tampa, Florida. Joe is a semi-respectable racketeer now, at ease slipping up and down between the world above and the world below.
A soft retirement lies ahead. Joe is respected in both worlds as a man with virtually no enemies, one who makes (mostly illegal) money for his friends while ably protecting them from the law. He seems like a man who, after a long life of crime and corruption, may at last be taking the last turnoff to straight town.
Why kill this golden goose? we wonder. As Joe learns quickly, no one in the underworld can ever said to be safe. A rumor reaches him, via one of the more curious kinks in the lowlife grapevine, that his death is wanted. And will happen. He’s even given a calendar date for his appointment with murder: Ash Wednesday, two short weeks away.
Joe sets out to find out who wants him dead and why on a colorful winding path that unfolds with pleasing roundabout grace and slow-fused suspense. Along the way, we meet a colorful crew of underworld figures including his boss, Dino Bartolo; his glamourous best friend Rico DiGiacomo; Mantooth Dix, top-hatted godfather of Tampa’s black underworld; and King Lucius, as poisonous and reclusive as a black widow, perverse beyond even the understanding of bad men.
The various justifications Joe and his friends have used over three decades to justify “our thing” (La Cosa Nostra) are wearing thin these days, in the light of Joe’s parental responsibilities, a reminder that most gangsters are human. With clumsy sincerity, Joe’s trying to raise his only son, Tomas, on his own after the murder of his mother some years earlier. He wants to raise a good kid, but that’s a mite challenging when Pop’s earning most of his money from the dark side. Still, this father-son relationship isn’t one of the book’s strong points, feeling a little thin and contrived at times, especially toward the end.
In another private complication, Joe is also carrying on with the wife of Tampa’s mayor and fancies the two of them might run away to escape the corruption surrounding them. Fat chance.
Finally, there’s also a mysterious little stranger who creeps by at odd moments in odd places: a ghost from the bloody sorrowful past? A dark portent for a darker future? Who knows? But you’ll keep swiping and turning the pages. As with all the best thrillers, you have to find out.
There’s an autumnal feel to this book, but these autumn leaves run red with blood. In Robert Lacey’s great biography of Meyer Lansky, Little Man, Lucky Luciano, co-founder of the modern American Mafia, is quoted as regretting that he hadn’t led the straight life; that the gangster life had led him only to poverty and loneliness. Like Luciano, Joe Coughlin carries some of the same regret. And like, Luciano, he learns there’s a certain point past which it’s too late for repentance and redemption.
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield