LIVE BY NIGHT
Little, Brown, $29.99
Joe Coughlin: a teenage petty thief in 1920s Boston and the son of a high-ranking police officer. Emma Gould: a gangster's moll with the morals of an alley cat. She's smart as a whip with no love to give.
They meet when Joe is involved in an ill-advised hold-up that goes predictably wrong. Together, Joe thinks they can make something of their lives, despite Emma's father being a pimp and her uncle a killer. But fate intervenes in the shape of Albert White - businessman, socialite, bootlegger and Emma's lover - and another heist that ends badly. Very badly. So badly, in fact, that Coughlin is sentenced to five years and four months in prison.
This is the story of Joe's rise to become one of the most feared gangsters in America during the Prohibition era. It's a tale not only of the rum rackets, but also a journey into the heart of a rapidly changing nation, and into the soul (or lack of soul) of a man who will do anything to claw his way to the top.
It's a saga of violence and betrayal; a world in which no one knows who to trust or turn to in a time of crisis. It's about men with ''fists like butchers' mallets'', quick to anger and even quicker to shoot.
''What's it about?'' Danny seemed authentically curious.
''What about it?''
''It's got its own set of rules.''
''Day's got rules, too.''
''Oh, I know,'' Joe said. ''But I don't like them.''
Joe doesn't much like any rules, other than his own. But he does have a certain code of conduct; a code of honour among thieves.
Dennis Lehane (pictured), a writer on The Wire and author of acclaimed crime novels Mystic River and Shutter Island, is our guide into the world of Joe - and Leonardo DiCaprio is tipped to play the role on the big screen, the rights having already been sold to Warner Bros.
''Crime never pays,'' Joe says. ''Unless you do it at an institutional level.''
The boy is a rebel without a clue - initially.
''You buy into all this stuff about good guys and bad guys in the world,'' he says. ''A loan shark breaks a guy's leg for not paying a debt, a banker throws a guy out of his home for the same reason, and you think there's a difference, like the banker's just doing his job but the loan shark's a criminal. I like the loan shark because he doesn't pretend to be anything else. I say the rules are bullshit. I say there are no rules but the ones a man makes for himself.''
Joe learns quickly and makes alliances in jail that set up his future on the outside. With Emma apparently dead (although he never gets over her), he links up with Graciela, a Cuban exile with her own set of rules.
When a young sailor threatens Graciela in the Florida Everglades, Joe discovers, perhaps to his own surprise, that he has the heart of a killer.
''You want me to beg, you're barking up the wrong -'' the sailor says. But Joe has no mercy. Lehane writes: ''Joe shot him in the face and the exit hole splattered pink all over the ferns, and the alligators thrashed in anticipation.''
This is dark, gritty and amoral stuff. A compelling read, but certainly not one for the faint of heart.