When we left Joe Coughlin at the end of Live By Night, he'd worked his way up to the top of Tampa's gangland, but lost his beloved wife Graciela in a shootout. He seemed ready to take his son and head for a quieter life in Cuba. But when World Gone By opens World War II is on, and Joe is of almost respectability in Tampa society, removed from the day-to-day of the gangster life while acting as the consigliore to the family headed by his old friend Dion Bartolo. But life will not stay quiet.
The war has taken many of the best soldiers who did the mobsters business, and a sort of chaos is brewing, sparked, Joe and Dion think, by an informer within their organisation. Joe's private life is about to get complicated; he's carrying on a dangerous affair, and he's informed, by a hit woman looking to stay safe in prison, that there is a contract out on him. But who would want to kill Joe Coughlin, whom everyone respects and nobody seems to hate? And he's started seeing a ghost.
You may recall Coughlin as a young boy, in The Given Day, where his father was a bigshot in the Boston police and his older brother was working his way up the blue ladder. But none of that was for Joe, and what Dennis Lehane's novel is about is the lure of the gangster life, Joe's inability to leave it behind, and the impossibility of squaring its twisted morality with that of the 'straight' world. 'Our thing' may swear by family, but as Joe knows all too well, his read family has paid a huge price to the other family whose life he so enjoys.
On the one hand, this is a fast-moving thriller. Who is trying to destroy the Bartolo-Coughlin good thing? Who wants Joe dead? And as Joe moves between a series of bad and worse men, you see the crack widening between his personal world outside the business and the business itself. And then slamming together very tightly. Within the pace of the plotting, some of this is Lehane's best writing: any number of chapters could literally stand alone as short stories (see 'Bone Valley' or 'Names On The Wind' as examples), and the punch line of 'Names On The Wind', in which a black gangster kills the man sent to kill him, who has just that day become a father, is telling: 'Who knows if you would have been any good at it?'.
It's like riding a car, which is under control, but just barely, because the driver knows what he is doing, but you know you are headed for a crash. In the end, it's as if Lehane himself is as much in love with the gangster life as Joe Coughlin is, only he's detached enough to see a bigger picture, a picture which includes ghosts. It is a marvellous feat to be able to write a sequel that at first seems to be a lesser version of its predecessor, and then turns out to be both simpler but more profound.
World Gone By by Dennis Lehane
Little,Brown £16.99 ISBN 9781408706695
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)