A few years ago, Dennis Lehane published Live by Night, the story of gangster Joe Coughlin and his rise to power in the Tampa/Cuba mob. It was a fascinating take on gangster stories, one that hadn’t been told before, and it felt fresh and exciting in a way that many gangster stories can’t, simply by virtue of being familiar. But by the end of that novel, Joe was stepping away from the life, moving towards something calmer.
So it’s unexpected, in some ways, to have a sequel to that book. And yet, here we are. World Gone By picks up nearly a decade after the end of Live By Night. Joe is mostly a legitimate businessman, but serves as the consigliere for his friend Dion – his name still carries a lot of weight, as does his business sense and ability to make money. He’s trying to raise his son, Tomas, on his own. And he’s wary of the ongoing fight in Europe – as is everyone around him – not just for fear of the Nazis, but also for what it means for his business.
And then, through a complicated series of events, Joe finds out that someone is trying to kill him. And while he knows the date, he doesn’t know who, and no one seems to know why.
That’s about all of the plot you should know about World Gone By, which unfolds from there, following Joe as he seeks to figure out this threat on his life, protect his son, and maintain his balance between his past and his efforts to be a better man. It’s a rich plot, one filled with fascinating characters, shocking violence, infinite shades of morality, and no easy answers – in other words, it’s exactly what you would expect from Dennis Lehane, who is one of the great masters of modern noir. While Lehane could have made World Gone By its own book, making it a sequel to Live By Night feels appropriate – this is the outcome of Joe’s life, and the book’s theme – that, in some ways, this is the world Joe created, and one which he deserves – is all the richer for us having seen his ascent to the top.
More than that, though, to read World Gone By is to read one of the great modern writers at the top of his game. There are chapters here that feel like nothing Lehane has done before, and succeed beyond your wildest imagination. The book’s prologue, for instance, follows a newspaper writer as he notices some pictures from a society charity event a few months, and realizes just how many of those people would die in the months following that picture. It’s a beautiful, and oddly bittersweet, way to open the book, and gives Lehane a fascinating way to get into his story. We know that violence is coming; we know that these people – well, many of them – won’t survive the book.
And yet, that still doesn’t prepare you for what Lehane does as he transitions into the party and Coughlin’s perspective, as he sees a most unique visitor to the party. It starts a compelling, strange thread in the book, one that reaches its climax only at the very end, and one that feels not only like Lehane trying something new, but pays off in a beautiful, haunting way by the end.
Even with all of this said, I don’t think I’ve quite done World Gone By justice; I haven’t even touched on the nightmarish scenes with King Lucius, or the perfect relationships between fathers and sons that fill the book, or Coughlin’s complicated relationship with a local woman. Suffice to say this: when I finished Live By Night, I thought it was Lehane’s best book to date. Now, World Gone By elevates that book, working together with Live By Night to make a pair that’s more than the sum of its parts. I can’t recommend it enough; as it is, I was heartbroken to get to the end, and to realize that I had no more pages left.