Paul Varian
Paul Varian

Book: World Gone By

Author: Dennis Lehane

Reviewer: Paul Varian, a longtime journalist who retired from CNN in 2013 after nearly 30 years as a senior editor, writer and executive producer

“World Gone By” is a work of historic fiction enlivened by the punchy, sometimes raunchy dialogue, flawed characters and jarring twists that are trademarks of Dennis Lehane‘s crime novels and gritty screenplays.

It’s the finale of a trilogy that looks at the dark side of life in  20th Century America from the end of one world war through the early days of a second.

It traces the rise of organized crime through the career, and personal life, of Joe Coughlin, renegade youngest son of a high-ranking but crooked cop, who rejects the family business for the life of an outlaw. And it features real-life gangsters like Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Carlos Marcello.

But, like “The Godfather,” it’s also about family, favors and debts that must be repaid.

Coughlin is a son who rejected his father, but resembles him physically and inherited his ruthless streak. And he’s a father more than willing to kill to protect his young son, especially after his wife was shot dead by a gunman aiming for him.

After Coughlin murdered a man in the kitchen of his home as the victim’s son was settling down for the night upstairs, “he thought of all the children who would grow up without fathers because he and men like him existed,” Lehane wrote.

But even though the mob had a “sacred rule … never involve families,” the reality was much harsher. “They didn’t kill families, true. They just amputated them.”

Lehane’s trilogy starts with the epic “A Given Day” set in post-World War I Boston, a cauldron of racism, corruption and anarchy. Then comes the more cinema-friendly “Live By Night” that traces Joe Coughlin’s rise in the underworld from violent confrontations with brutal Boston bootleggers to his anointing as Tampa kingpin in Florida‘s rumrunning trade.

In “World Gone By,” Coughlin returns from a self-imposed exile in Cuba as consigliere for Tampa’s Ybor City mob who first suggests and helps negotiate Luciano’s prison release and deportation to Sicily and partners with Lansky in the Mafia’s expansion into Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba.

All the while, he becomes prominent in Tampa’s high society circles as a legitimate businessman adept at “bringing the beacons of this city into contact with the demons, making it all seem like a lark” — even as he gets tangled up in a scandalous sexual affair with the mayor’s wife.

But he is haunted by rumors that a contract has been put out on him and recurring ghostly visions of a 6- or 7-year-old boy dressed in out-of-date clothes, a mystery Lehane doesn’t clear up  until the book’s startling conclusion.

The rumored contract is the driving force of this novel. The increasingly paranoid Coughlin killed that man in his kitchen after he had been misled into believing he was the hired hitman.

Internecine mob combat follows and the ever-wily Coughlin sets a trap for the man who truly had been plotting his demise, but it has unintended consequences.

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