When we were kids and we used to play cops and robbers it was pretty clear who was supposed to be the good guy and who the bad guy. Of course, real life is seldom that clear and in the Depression-era America of Dennis Lehane's Live By Night
the distinction is nearly irrelevant. Cops were cops, but cops could often be crooks themselves. Others, like Joe Coughlin, who himself is the son of a cop, live outside the imposed the laws of the state while subscribing to their own brand of uncommon honor. Joe liked to think of himself as an "outlaw" and not a "gangster." As he carves his own piece of the criminal empire in Tampa, however, he finds that the distinction is far less distinct than he once imagined.
Lehane in Live By Night
has proven himself to be a deft portrayer of character. Indeed, it was almost as if he were directing actors in a film. Small nuances of speech and nearly insignificant physical gestures come together to create the stuff that brings characters to life. Furthermore, he does this without a lot of unnecessary words. Lehane's prose can be direct and functional yet still turn on a dime into unexpectedly eloquent and haunting passages.
For these reasons, I can forgive the brief, but significant, fault of Live By Night
. I say this fault is significant because if it weren't for the fact that this book was a joy to read, this major demerit would have knocked this book down to three stars for me: a good read, but not excellent. As it is, the positive aspects outweigh the negative and I shall leave it as a four-star book. But these faults still bear mentioning. My negatives are a spoiler. If you've read the book then have a look, but if you have not and intend to then I would recommend not reading the next section just yet.
I was a little unsure about how I should feel about rating this book as I did. On one hand it was excellent. On the other hand, Lehane committed a crime far worse than any gangster in this book and that is the crime of cliché. Cliché with intent to sentimentalize. I am being lenient on his sentence of course, a mere slap on the wrist, but clearly this warrants at least some community service.
If you've read the book then you may know what I am talking about. The last bit of Chapter 28, the next to last chapter, in which Graciela is killed. This was such an unnecessary event and I can only imagine that it was placed there for the sake of sentiment. It did not work for me. Scratch that, it worked negatively for me. It brought me to tears not because I was sad for her death but because it was so cliché and cornball. It was more than cornball. It was high-fructose-cornball-syrup. Barf.
I have been trying to figure out if there is any purpose besides puerile sentiment for this event and I can think of none. There is no thematic message here that is convincing enough for me to accept this as worthwhile. It felt supremely cheap to me. As you can tell, I feel quite strongly about this. The ending would have been far stronger, in my opinion, if the last scene in Chapter 28 had been cut. If you're going to use a cliché do it at the beginning or middle of the book and not the end.
But am I going to let this affect my overall view of the book? No. It's still an excellent book. I am just going to pretend that pages 400-401 never happened.