World Gone By by Dennis Lehane review: criminal class

Declan Burke admires the tragic complexities of a guilt-ridden American crime lord in this follow-up to ‘Live By Night’

World Gone By
World Gone By
Author: Dennis Lehane
ISBN-13: 978-1408706695
Publisher: Little, Brown
Guideline Price: £16.99

'Before the small war broke them apart," begins World Gone By, "they all gathered to support the big war." The story opens in December 1942 in Tampa's Versailles Ballroom, at a glamorous fundraiser for US troops stationed overseas. Actors, singers and sport stars mingle with financial and political heavyweights.

The event is organised and choreographed by Joseph "Boston Joe" Coughlin, the Irish-American gangster we first met as a street punk on the make in The Given Day (2008), and who whose bloody and brutal rise to power during Prohibition is detailed in Live By Night (2012).

By now a largely respectable businessman, albeit one who still has business interests in common with the notorious Meyer Lansky in Cuba, Coughlin is respected and feared by his colleagues and enemies. A man who has always ensured that his associates in “the most powerful business syndicate in the Western hemisphere” earned handsomely from his illicit ventures, and a former gangster who no longer has any power worth killing for, Joe is to all intents and purposes untouchable.

So who has put a hit out on Joe Coughlin? And why would anyone want to kill him and disrupt the status quo?


These questions provide World Gone By, Lehane's 12th novel, with its narrative spine, as Coughlin tries to discover who his enemies are and second-guess their motives, all the while attempting to keep a lid on a race war that is threatening to explode as an ambitious Italian-American faction tries to muscle in on the Tampa turf of "the Negro gangster Montooth Dix".

There are thrills and spills aplenty as the story unfolds, but it is in the flesh that Lehane packs onto the bones that the novel truly comes alive.

Noble in aspiration

Coughlin is a fascinating creation, a dignified savage who is every bit as vicious when it comes to defending his own interests – including, most notably, the life of his young son Tomas – as he is noble in his aspirations for a better, more rewarding life for those he holds dear.

He is a complex man, the black sheep scion of “a family tree whose branches had bent over the centuries with the weight of troubadours, publicans, writers, revolutionaries, magistrates, and policemen – liars all.”

He is capable of falling in love with another man’s wife (in the process risking abject humiliation for them both) while still fiercely grieving for his dead wife, Tomas’s mother, Graciela. He is acutely aware of his failings as a man and a father: “No,” he says in the wake of a shoot- out massacre, answering Tomas’s question as to whether he’s “a bad guy”, “just not a particularly good one.”

Haunted by what appears to be the ghost of a young boy, Coughlin is unable to decide if he is hallucinating due to stress, experiencing a foreshadowing of his own mortality, or suffering a self-fulfilling prophecy born of years of subsumed guilt over the blood on his hands.

Turbulent transition


World Gone By

is about the turbulent transition of America’s criminal fraternity from the riotous gangster era, as epitomised by Coughlin and his peers, to the post-WWII years and the more organised crime of the Mafia.

Coughlin, the former hot-headed punk who grew up to become a thoughtful strategist, straddles both worlds, although from the beginning Joe, one of the great tragic anti-heroes of contemporary crime fiction, is conscious that his is an untenable position, that fate itself decrees that blood must always be paid back in blood.

“Sometimes,” Lehane writes, “when outrage begat outrage with enough frequency, it threatened the fabric of the universe, and the universe pushed back.”

Declan Burke's latest novel is The Lost and the Blind (Severn House); his column on crime fiction appears in the Arts & Books pages each month

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Declan Burke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic