“But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” That, at least, was the view of John Dos Passos in his introduction to the magnificent fictional social history USA.
In recent decades it has fallen largely to crime fiction writers to sustain the tradition which Dos Passos established. There may have been earlier efforts but the first I came across was Loren Estelman’s Detroit Trilogy which appeared in the 1990’s. After that we jump a few years and the continent to James Ellroy’s various accounts of politics, policing and crime in LA (often without any separation of the three). Ace Atkins chipped in with several historical accounts of the Deep South. In recent years, the strain has been perpetuated almost single-handedly by Dennis Lehane with The Given Day, Live By Night and now with World Gone By.
The first two titles in the series were almost encyclopaedic in their coverage of life and history in the north-eastern states focusing on Boston. So it was a bit disappointing to find World Gone By much more limited in both time (1943) and locale (Tampa with a final excursion to Havana). But once you overcome that initial disappointment you find a book which is full of excellent features, and on occasion is truly outstanding.
Joe Coughlin has survived an attempt to destroy him and the other members of the Bartolo crime syndicate which controlled Boston. But, at a personal cost. Joe had to take out a fair number of the opposition and they succeeded in murdering his wife. Several years later, Joe is now a respected member of Tampa’s high society where he lives with his young son Tomas. At the same time he remains an influential background figure in the Bartoli syndicate whose successful empire now extends beyond Boston to Florida and Cuba.
America’s entry into the Second World War has brought a few problems for the syndicate. Their smuggling operations are being hit by the US Navy’s extensive efforts to prevent espionage and sabotage of US military establishments by the Axis powers. On the other hand it has reaped a few benefits. Thanks to Joe’s advice the mafia have cornered the rubber market which the US government needs to access for its war effort. The Government also wants the syndicate’s co-operation in ensuring the shipping and the marine trade which it also needs for the war effort is not obstructed by the mafia-controlled unions. But the bigger problems are internal. Dion Bartolo, the mafia boss and Joe’s old pal from Boston days, is rapidly becoming a spent force. His younger partners are becoming increasingly ambitious to succeed him. Moreover, they want to extend their operations into the nearby Ybor which is controlled (very effectively) by a Black Mafiosi with whom Dion and Joe have co-operated to mutual benefit.
Within this web of intrigue Joe finds himself with a serious personal problem. A contract has been put out on him to be fulfilled in a matter of days. The problem is made more difficult by the fact that Joe has no idea why the contract has been taken out, by whom, and how it will be carried out. He doesn’t quite know how but he suspects the contract has not a little to do with the increasing tension within the familia. He finally takes all the advice he has been given to decamp to Cuba until things cool down.
However, while the flight to Cuba seems to have removed the likelihood of the contract being executed, it also places Joe in a more difficult position with the ultimate Mafia bosses, luminaries like Meyer Lansky. He is accused by the younger rivals of siding with the Black team in Ybor rather than the Bartoli family. More serious still he is seen as an accomplice of Dion who is found to have been a stoolie for the FBI. Who will Lansky believe? Can Joe get himself out of this new can of worms with the same degree of success with which he escaped the concrete boot in Live By Night?
As you can imagine this is a riveting story which sustains its grip right up to the final pages. Once again it shows Dennis Lehane to be one of the best exponents of contemporary US crime fiction. But what is even more noticeable in World Gone By is his mastery of dialogue, some of which is truly sizzling, ready made for the big screen and even for the voices of Bogart and Bacall were they still around.