Irish American novelist Denis Lehane’s tale of love and revenge in the Prohibition era - “Live by Night” is his finest achievement


“The journey of the book is the one of Joe stepping into himself. He leaves the world that he has known behind. In that respect it's very much a coming of age story,” Lehane says.

“But he also begins to leave his soul behind too. And that becomes the big question at the latter end of the book -- can you possibly ever retain your soul in this business he's in?

“He's a gangster. Just because he rescues a prostitute or two doesn't mean he doesn't profit from prostitution. That question goes deeper into the next book (which Lehane is currently writing) which is very much a journey into darkness.”

There are certain places in the book that Joe goes to that Lehane went to in his twenties as a pasty Irish kid from Boston, he says.

“I ended up in Florida, as he does. Joe sees an entirely other world open up to him and that's exactly what happened to me,” says Lehane.

“If you grow up in a very insular society as I did in Boston and you step out of it it's an eye opener. I didn't realize that everyone doesn't look pasty and pale. I hadn’t heard a Latin beat. It changed me.”

That personal connection makes the fictional one come to life. Although throughout his career Lehane has focused on Irish Americans, and the darker chapters of our history here, he has never received criticism for showing us up. Has he ever experienced pushback?

“I've given that a lot of thought. I think the reason I haven't is that I show warts and all. I don't just show the warts or I'd never hear the end of it,” he says.

“I also show why it's fun. I show what a block party in a working class neighborhood looks like. I show how wonderful it is to be in a pub with your friends. I'm giving you the real thing.

“The Irish don't forgive you if you’re a carpet bagger or a tourist, but if you're an insider and you show the way it really is that's okay. If that's what you do then I find the pushback is minimal.”

Live By Night succeeds because it shows us the unbridled exuberance of a country coming into its own. And it's that great melting depicted at the absolute surfeit of that moment, from 1900 to the fifties where everyone saw the yield of that exchange.

It was the time of the American cities. The great cities built by immigrants. Lehane wants to tell its secret histories and he does it like no other writer.