"Live by Night," by Dennis Lehane, and " Dropped Names," by Frank Langella.
"Live by Night" is, first and foremost, a great story. But it is also proof positive that Lehane's 2008 novel, "The Given Day," was no fluke -- more than just a crime writer, Lehane is an author who works on a higher literary plane.
"Live by Night" is centered on Joe Coughlin, a low-level gangster in Prohibition-era Boston who is smarter than his pay grade. We'd met Coughlin's family before, in "The Given Day." (The protagonist there was Joe's brother Danny, an honest Boston cop.)
Despite their divergent paths, Joe notes that there's not much difference between "a loan shark [who] breaks a guy's leg for not paying his debt [and] a banker [who] throws a guy out of his home for the same reason."
Joe falls for the moll of a mobster and commits a crime to raise money so they can run away. Caught and sent to prison, he falls under the sway of a Mafia don who hires him to run a bootlegging operation in Florida.
He overcomes obstacles and assassination attempts, marries and settles down in a comfortable gangster-emeritus life style in Cuba, doling out his ill-gotten gains to various charities and seemingly headed for an idyllic retirement. But as the dead-solid perfect denouement shows, fate always has a way of intruding.
"Live by Night" is a morality tale in which, as one character notes, "No one's good, no one's bad." Except for the author, who once again shows just how good he is.
Dennis Lehane will be at the Pen Pals Author Series April 11-12, 2013, at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Tickets ($40/$50); 612-543-8112 or supporthclib.org.
CURT SCHLEIER, FREELANCE WRITER
Everyone knows that Frank Langella packs a wallop onstage. Who knew he could also be such a chatty storyteller? "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them," his first book, ignores plodding tales of childhood and personal problems and zeroes in directly on what we want: stars, stars and more stars. From a chance encounter with John F. Kennedy to a withering dismissal of acting teacher Lee Strasberg, the "Frost/Nixon" actor is both charming and frank in these short, engaging tales that could have just as easily been told at a tavern without changing a word.
NEAL JUSTIN, MEDIA CRITIC