LIVE BY NIGHT, by Dennis Lehane. William Morrow, 401 pp., $27.99.
In the closing pages of Dennis Lehane's "Moonlight Mile" (2010), Patrick Kenzie announces his intention to abandon his career as a private investigator, return to graduate school and take up the study of history. It requires no great stretch to view that declaration as a not-so-veiled reflection of the author's own career plans. Having established a solid reputation as an urban crime novelist, Lehane himself changed direction, finding new sources of inspiration in the recent American past. His 2008 novel, "The Given Day," was a sweeping historical epic and a pitch-perfect example of the crime novel as social history.
Set primarily in post-World War I Boston, "The Given Day" used the experiences of a single Irish American family -- the Coughlins -- to illuminate the defining events of an era. Lehane's latest, "Live by Night," is both an independent narrative and a loosely connected sequel. The story begins in 1926, and Prohibition is in full swing. Joe Coughlin, the son and brother of prominent Boston policemen, has turned his back on the family business and rises to the upper echelons of the bootlegger's trade. It's a thriving business that offers the potential for great wealth and violent death, as Lehane makes clear in his opening sentences: "Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard."
What follows is an episodic narrative that traces the arc of Joe's career. Early on, Joe and two compatriots hold up a poker game run by a powerful local mobster. Compounding this mistake, Joe meets -- and falls for -- the mobster's mistress, setting in motion a sequence of events that reverberates throughout the novel.
Shortly afterward, a bank heist gone wrong sends Joe to prison, where he encounters a Machiavellian crime boss who launches Joe on his highflying, post-prison career. That career will lead from Boston to Tampa to Havana, with sudden reversals of fortune, moments of stunning violence and an inevitably tragic denouement.
"Live by Night" might sound like a standard-issue crime saga. But with its fresh, precise language and its lovingly detailed recreation of an earlier age, "Live by Night" assumes an unimpeachable reality of its own.
The true heart of Lehane's achievement lies in the character of Joe Coughlin. Joe sees himself as an outlaw who takes pride in defying the conventions of the heartless, hypocritical daytime world. In his view, the outlaw stands above and apart from the morally bankrupt gangster, whose actions add to the sum total of human misery. As his career progresses and these once-distinct categories bleed into one another, he is forced to acknowledge his contribution to the misery, chaos and brutality proliferating around him. That bitter and hard-won knowledge defines Joe's life, lending resonance and depth to this meticulously crafted portrait of our violent national past.