Midway through Dennis Lehane’s new historical thriller, reformed gangster Joe Coughlin, also the protagonist of a previous book, “Live by Night,” visits his physician for a check-up. Coughlin is having visions; he periodically sees a young boy in outdated clothes playing in the distance, and he wants to make sure his hallucinations are not being caused by a brain tumor. The doctor checks him out, finds nothing beyond a case of stress, and sends him on his way. But in the course of this unexceptional appointment, Lehane slips in the doctor’s own sordid story of how he became a mob doctor in Tampa.
It’s a throwaway scene that is also a testament to how good a storyteller Lehane has become. The doctor appears in just this one chapter, but his backstory packs more visceral punch than some full novels. It turns out he has a ghost of his own — one he’s lived with for many years. I reread the chapter the moment after I finished it.
“World Gone By,” which traces Coughlin’s ill-fated attempt at a quiet new life a decade after his old one came to a violent end, is bursting at the seams with great stories. Every character who floats through this saga of mobsters in 1940s Tampa has his or her own astonishing tale to tell. And these yarns aren’t just there to keep the reader entertained — they illuminate character and foreshadow fate. And they help to create a vivid, beautifully rendered world.
The novel begins with a journalist recounting to his editor a series of photographs of gangsters and politicians gathered at a wartime fund-raising party. There are ghosts everywhere in “World Gone By”; the reporter points out that many of the photographed partygoers are now dead, setting a fatalistic tone for the main narrative.
One of the photographed gangsters is Coughlin, our hero (for lack of a better word). He is the son of a Boston cop and a former Prohibition-era criminal. He has gone halfway legit, acting as a consigliore to Tampa’s top mobsters, but trying to keep away from the violence that marked his past.
He’s a widowed father to a sensitive boy named Tomás, has a nice little affair going with the mayor’s wife, and walks through life in impeccable suits with the belief that he has no real enemies. Then he gets word from a jailed killer called Theresa Del Frisco that there’s a contract out on him; he’s due to be whacked in just a few days time, on the upcoming Ash Wednesday.
The only minor quibble I have with the book is that Lehane casts his net so wide, painting so many intriguing characters, that I wanted to spend more time with some of my favorites. That’s the case with Del Frisco, who was jailed for collapsing her husband’s skull with a croquet mallet. She’s a contract killer with a heart of ice, but she also knows that her only shot at redemption is to stay alive in prison for her young son. I could easily have spent an entire novel in her wicked company.
As the varying pieces of the novel fall into place, and the reason behind Coughlin’s death sentence is revealed, the story takes on an epic tone. Picture “The Godfather” on cocaine. Loyalties are brutally betrayed in the Tampa mob, run by Dion Bartolo, Coughlin’s best friend since childhood. The action moves to Cuba, where Meyer Lansky, one of several real-life figures in the novel, is brought into the fray. The bullets fly, but somehow it never feels familiar. Lehane writes a masterful set-piece in which a gangland hit is seen through the eyes of a young boy in the backseat of a car.
The mobsters here are not all evil, but neither are they romanticized. Coughlin himself recognizes that money — and not family — is the one indisputable love that all these men share. Yet at the same time, Lehane shows us the toll that a life of violence takes on these men and their families. This violence cuts a wide swath From Montooth Dix, the black gangster in charge of Ybor City to Billy Kovich, a low-level killer as devoted to his son as Coughlin is to his. Everyone is bloodied, the mob bosses and the mob doctors, plus the women and children attached to these criminal men. The ghosts pile up, right up to the novel’s chilling, inevitable end.
Peter Swanson’s most recent novel is “The Kind Worth Killing”.