Denis Lehane returns to the world of gangsters and organised crime in World Gone By. In 2008, Lehane, already known for his Kenzie and Genarro crime series (of which Gone Baby Gone is the best known) and stand alone novels like Mystic River and Shutter Island, penned The Given Day: a historical epic about the fiercely Irish Coughlin family set during the 1919 Boston Police riots. The loosely connected sequel Live by Night, stepped forwards a few years and centred around black sheep of the Coughlin family, Joe, who finds himself enmeshed in the prohibition era organised crime. Live by Night chartered Joe’s rise from a small time hood in Boston, through wit and guile and a propensity for violence, to running a crime syndicate in Florida.
World Gone By finds Joe ten years on. He has stepped down from the top role, ceding it to his oldest friend (and more importantly Italian) Dion Bartolo. Joe is the consigliere, the fixer. Every crime family and syndicate owes him for some scheme he has put in place to make them money. As Dion says at one point – this is their “thing”, finding ways to screw the Government out of money. So when Joe learns that someone has taken a contract out on him, he needs to find out why.
But the contract is just a symptom of wider changes occurring in the world that Joe has built. While the old guard try to hold things together, their younger, power hungry lieutenants are restless and start to use the old rules to fashion their own, new world order. World Gone By, as the title suggests is looking at change - change of attitude, change of rules, change of generation – and of the dangers of looking back versus the risks of looking forward. Joe sees this almost physically in the form of a ghostly image of a young boy from his past. But others are haunted too by the choices that they made and the lives that they have led. This feeling is instilled in the book right from the first chapter, where a journalist reflects on photos of a charity ball that Joe hosted and how many of the people in those photos are now dead.
Joe Coughlin is a complex and engaging anti-hero. He constantly strives to do what he thinks is the right thing within a fundamentally corrupt and corrupting system. Joe does not think of himself as ‘bad’ although he accepts that he does bad things. But as the threat comes closer to him and his family Joe’s propensity for violent solutions comes to the surface. Despite this, Joe constantly tries to set an example for his ten year old son, and wants him to think well of him despite his day job as a gangster.
World Gone By is another brilliant, layered crime novel from Lehane, one of the world’s premier crime writers. It can be read as a stand alone, but readers of the earlier novels will be more rewarded. The plot ticks over with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. The descriptions and set pieces are cinematic. The dialogue shifts from goodfellas style talk to deep conversations about the nature of good and evil, racism and morality. This is a writer at the top of his game.