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Onyx reviews: World Gone By by Dennis Lehane

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 11/25/2014

World Gone By is the third book featuring the Coughlin family. Dennis Lehane started their story in the second decade of the twentieth century in The Given Day and shifted the action from Boston to Tampa and from the good side of the law to the criminal in Live By Night, set in the 1920s and early 1930s. By the end of that novel, Joe Coughlin was the Prince of Ybor City, but he paid a great price for his rise to power.

The final book in the trilogy starts in the early 1940s, with America now involved in the conflict in Europe, which means that many young men are not around to earn money. Some business models have changed. Former bootleggers and rumrunners are now using their alcohol for the lucrative manufacture of rubber products, for example. Mobs are still making money controlling shipping. They're even cooperating with the government to limit black market thefts and to make sure Axis saboteurs don't infiltrate the ports, a program known as Operation Underworld. 

Things have changed for Joe Coughlin, too. He has become wealthy and is now a mobster emeritus, an apparently legit businessman no longer directly involved in the day-to-day operations of his former associates, but still commanding a great deal of respect. For someone working on the gray side of the law, he manages to move about freely in just about every facet of Tampa's societies and cultures. He isn't out of place at highbrow social events, including fundraisers for the war effort, he has connections to important people in the government (American and Cuban) and with Naval Intelligence, and his new secret mistress is married to a very important man. 

He poses a threat to no one, not even his former enemies, so when he hears via the criminal grapevine that someone has taken out a contract on his life, he's surprised. The intelligence is very specific, but he has a hard time taking it seriously. Why would the killer wait until Ash Wednesday to carry out the job? Still, he hears the rumors from enough sources that he's forced into action. It's been a long time since he's made anyone mad, but there's prior history of "golden boys" like Coughlin being killed or disappeared. Complicating matters is the fact that there's probably a snitch within the organization that is costing them serious money because of raids and lost personnel.

In his position as consigliere to the Bartolo crime family, he is often called upon to keep the peace with partner or rival syndicates. A territorial move by Freddy DiGiacomo brings relations with Montooth Dix, the leader of the Afro-American/Afro-Cuban community, to a head. Although everyone agrees that DiGiacomo's actions were ill-advised and wrong-headed, Dix must pay for his reprisals. No one wants to see this man dead—he's been a good earner and killing him will leave a power vacuum that may be filled by a less favorable man—but the rules of engagement cannot be violated. Coughlin tries his best to find a solution that satisfies everyone, which may be an impossible task.

In the previous novel, Coughlin had persistent visions of a panther. Now, he's seeing a small boy just about everywhere he goes, a child that no one else sees. Are the visions caused by some organic defect, perhaps a brain tumor? His doctors can't find anything wrong with him, so perhaps it's purely psychological. He lost his wife as a result of his business dealings, after all, and he is raising their nine-year-old son, Tomás, by himself. Does the phantom boy represent his son, a younger version of himself, or something else?

The cast of characters is colorful and well drawn. One of the most interesting is Theresa Del Fresco, a successful female contract killer who ends up in prison after she violates her rule about operating on her own turf. Some of the mobsters are engaging and funny, while others are terrifying and lethal. Merely being in their presence—perhaps after being summoned to a meeting with a man whose victims are never found supposedly because he employees cannibals—could spell the end of a person's life because one false word, one unintended insult is one too many. And the old adage that there's no honor among crooks or thieves proves true.

At the heart of it all, though, is Joe Coughlin, who is the very definition of a complicated character. He's a killer and a thief, but he's also a father and a businessman and a friend to many. Is he evil? He struggles with that question, though he has undeniably drifted far from his biological family's business, and Lehane never lets readers forget that he has few compunctions about using violent methods. Fans of The Godfather will recognize his ilk, and Lehane doesn't over-glamorize him, even if Coughlin is as good as he possibly can be, given his circumstances.

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