I came across Live By Night a while ago, but I wasn’t sure I would like it so it went on and off my “to read” list until I saw that it was being made into a movie. I knew I would watch the movie adaptation of the novel and because I have a sick need to first read any book that becomes a movie, I picked this up. First of all I was struck by how much better this novel was than from what was described on the jacket. This was much more than just a gangster novel, which only had limited appeal to me. Joe was a mediocre criminal whose life changed when he fell head over heals with Emma, who was the girlfriend of a mobster Joe stole thousands of dollars from.
Joe was surrounded by people who had no loyalty to him, which resulted in emotional betrayals that had devastating impacts on his life. When Joe’s theft was discovered he wound up in jail and was thrust into situations that demanded he behave in ways well outside of who he was. There were so many moments where Joe’s desperation to just stay alive pushed him to become someone he wasn’t. That desperation made me like Joe even more. Joe was an interesting character because he started out as a small time criminal, but his stint in jail turned him into a ruthless war lord without regard to life.
The action in this story moved fast and was enhanced by the descriptions of the atmosphere and time period. The plot was dependent upon the lies and betrayals of the characters surrounding Joe, many of which came without warning. Those twists made this a complex gangster novel that was interesting to me because it was so unlike so many of the other novels I have read.
Once Joe was released from prison, I lost a bit of respect for him because he seemed to be just another thug without the emotional drive that he had in the beginning of the novel. Without that drive, he was no longer the endearing character who earned my sympathy. Suddenly, the novel was all about Joe flexing his muscles in a new position as head gangster who was intent on dealing drugs. Joe seemed to lack emotion and motive for those actions, and instead the story focused on the action of crime. As a result, I had a hard time getting behind Joe from that point on.
The one thing that made this a good story was the amount of detail provided about the culture and political climate of the times. The author really laid out an entire network of crime bosses, their rackets, and the cities they dominated. In that way, I would compare this to the intricate story of The Godfather.
Overall, this was an interesting read, although I wouldn’t read any other novels in this series.