Dennis Lehane's tightly focused cinematic style made such books as "Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone" and "Shutter Island" great material for screenwriters. His finest novel, 2008's "The Given Day," though, is simply too ambitious to be condensed into the typical two-hour movie.
It's a 700-page sprawler set in 1919, a tumultuous year in America and particularly in Boston, where police went on strike, a river of molasses flowed through the city's streets, Babe Ruth enjoyed his final year as a Red Sox star and civic corruption was rampant.
The Bambino is part of big cast of historical figures in the book, from Calvin Coolidge to J. Edgar Hoover, but it's the fictional Coughlin family that is at the center of the narrative.
Lehane continues to follow one member of that family, Joe Coughlin, first in "Live by Night," in which Joe becomes a successful and dangerous mobster during Prohibition, and now in "World Gone By," set in Florida 10 years after his criminal empire collapsed.
The backdrop is the port city of Tampa, Fla., with its diverse communities of Cuban immigrants, Southern aristocrats, segregated black neighborhoods and criminal gangs with East Coast roots. Lehane sketches this polyglot scene in broad strokes — sometimes too broad, as his characters are mostly stereotypes rather than individuals.
In contrast, Coughlin's character has shades of black and white — a coldblooded killer who treasures his son and late wife; a cynic who trusts no one, yet maintains a close friendship with a mobster; a man of no illusions about women, yet who has fallen in love with Vanessa, the mayor's wife.
He's living a respectable life in Tampa, using his smarts to counsel various mob figures, including Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, and keeping the local crime factions at peace. Government agents worried about Nazi smugglers are interested in his influence on the shipping business.
Occasionally, a ghostly figure from "The Given Day" appears, to trouble him.
While Joe and Vanessa are careful to hide their daytime trysts, they're careless about contraception. Her complicated pregnancy — her husband is impotent — joins a lengthening list of problems that turn Coughlin's well-ordered life into a nightmare. That turn comes in the climactic shootout that sets up his fate. The scene is the best writing in "World Gone By," suspenseful and fast-moving.
Lehane loves tough guys, whether they're near-imbeciles with physical skills or shrewd, smart men like Joe who can maneuver the fine print of a contract and the handle of a revolver with equal mastery. He throws in a psychopath or two as well.
The characters, coupled with the colorful city of Tampa, drive the book, but the plot loses tension after the shootout, leading to an abrupt and unsatisfying finale. It is as if, after three books, Lehane lost interest in Joe Coughlin. But, again, there's a son.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.