Review: Dennis Lehane’s ‘World Gone By’

World Gone By. Dennis Lehane. Morrow. 308 pages. $27.99.
World Gone By. Dennis Lehane. Morrow. 308 pages. $27.99.

World Gone By is Joe Coughlin’s story, but the world he inhabits and the people around him truly showcase author Dennis Lehane’s gifts and craft, both of them in full force in this novel. He’s so good that a tossed-off backstory of an ancillary character is suddenly the most interesting tale you’ve heard in ages.

This is the third book in Lehane’s epic historical series about the Coughlin family in the first few decades of the 20th century. Joe, who was also the subject of the previous book Live By Night, is the family’s youngest son and wildest seed. He’s rejected the family business — policing — for organized crime, and he has left the family home of Boston for Tampa and Cuba.

Reading Lehane’s previous historical novels is enriching to this story but is not necessary. World Gone By stands alone as the story of a man who has lost almost everything but still has reason to survive. The primary reason for Joe is his son, Tomas. An infant at the end of the last novel, Tomas is now a precocious 10-year-old who is starting to wonder what dad really does for a living.

Tomas knows his father owns sugar and rum companies, but he also knows a “lot of things in their life that seemed to be one thing could also be something else.”

World Gone By takes place in 1943. Prohibition, which helped make Joe and his friends rich, is long gone. The country is fully engaged in World War II. The war is consuming manpower and resources, but for smart gangsters, there are ways to profit. And Joe is nothing if not a smart gangster, so smart that he has removed himself from running the organization and instead serves behind the scenes as a consigliere to his childhood buddy, Dion Bartolo.

He still has to contend with risk and threats, from within the organization and from outside authorities. And though he’s matured into a respected businessman, he still has an outlaw’s contempt for conventional authority.

Arguing with a girlfriend about his occupation, Joe says he’s no worse than bankers who foreclosed on homeowners during Florida real estate crashes and the Depression. “Bankers don’t shoot each other in the head, Joe,” she tells him. He answers that that’s because they don’t like wrinkling their suits. “Just because they do their dirt with a pen doesn’t make them cleaner.”

Lehane has Elmore Leonard’s ear for dialogue and a masterly touch with description, like this appraisal of a Tampa police captain: “Byner had been in their pocket since he was a detective sergeant. One day he’d be commissioner. He wasn’t exceptionally corrupt — you could never place a bet on those guys — he just wanted to keep the peace, by whatever means necessary. He was also people-smart but money-dumb, a perfect combination.”

World Gone By offers a frisson like you get from the best gangster sagas from The Godfather to The Sopranos — entry into a world of complex characters who are operating within their highly risky world. And it serves a plot that drives relentlessly forward without ever feeling forced.

Lehane is best known for his contemporary novels, including Mystic River and the series featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. Readers who love those books, as well as those who love noir-ish stories from the 20th century, are missing out if they skip this trilogy.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN radio.