World Gone By is the third novel in Dennis Lehane’s ambitious set of historical novels, and an immensely satisfying crime novel in its own right.
Against the backdrop of World War II, World Gone By is set a decade after the events of Live By Night. Joseph Coughlin has left behind his gangster past and now serves behind the scenes of the Florida crime syndicate as an advisor; completely hands-off, consultant work only. At the same time, he walks among the Tampa elite as a respected businessman. For all intents and purposes, despite a bloodied past, which turned him into a widower, Coughlin lives a comfortable existence. But all of that is about to change.
It starts with the appearance of a ghost. It has the appearance of a young boy, whose face remains indiscernible regardless of Joe’s angle. A manifestation of Joe’s father? Perhaps Joe himself? Or the ethereal reincarnation of one of Joe’s victims? He can’t make sense of it; why now, at this juncture of life, is he being haunted? His woes continue when he learns he is the target of an assassination. But who wants Joe dead? And why? The life he has constructed for himself, and his young son, wiped his criminal slate clean. He no longer has enemies. Joe Coughlin may no longer wield a fearful presence, but he maintains a respected one, and respectability holds a certain amount of cache in any spectrum of society, criminal or aboveboard.
World Gone By is a novel about morality. Joe never denies his tainted past. He doesn’t pretend to be a good man, but would say he’s trying to be a better one for the sake of his son. He’s played the cards he was dealt, and has done so successfully. And despite the inherent criminality of his actions, he’s never betrayed his code of ethics. Gangsters, contrary to what their profession might suggest, have a code. But Lehane’s novel demonstrates just how fallible that code is, and how easily empires can collapse when one oversteps those boundaries. World Gone By puts long-standing friendships and alliances to the test. When you’re a gangster, who can you can trust? And once you’ve been a gangster, once you’ve been steeped in immorality, is there really such a thing as renewal? Can you remove yourself from that life? Such themes have been explored previously, but few have done so as adeptly as Lehane.
With its cracking pace and white-knuckled conclusion, World Gone By is a stunning historical crime novel. While it might lack the overt ambitiousness of The Given Day, it’s a fine demonstration of Lehane’s literary prowess. More please.