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Review: Dennis Lehane’s ‘World Gone By’ wants to know who the criminals really are

World Gone By

By Dennis Lehane

William Morrow

309 pages, $27.99

By Janice Okun

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

“About the only difference I see between a thief and a banker most times is a college degree,” gangster Joe Coughlin tells his society mistress. And when she points out that “bankers don’t shoot each other in the streets,” his answer is swift: “Because they don’t like wrinkling their suits … Just because they do their dirt with a pen doesn’t make them cleaner.”

Joe really believes it, too, or tries to convince himself he does; through a lifetime of hoodlumism and prison time he’s had plenty of time to rationalize. And now he’s sitting pretty. It’s the early 1940s, America has just gone to war and he’s semi-retired, acting as consigliere to the Bartolo crime family in Tampa and can keep his hands relatively clean.

The mob is running roughshod, but Joe is cool. He moves easily between Tampa society, government employees and the mob – crime figures like Meyer Lansky who groomed and protected him while he was in prison.

He is also very rich, owning an estate in Cuba where he acts as a kind of go-between with figures like Fulgencio Batista and can refer to the still-imprisoned Lucky Luciano as “Charlie.” Then there’s that mistress and a 9-year-old son Tomas, whom he adores.

True, his beloved wife was killed in mob action a few years ago, but basically things are good.

Suddenly, they’re not. Joe begins to see ghosts, most often a young boy dressed in old-fashioned clothes who disappears when he approaches him; the doctor (who sees a few ghosts of his own) tells him it’s stress. Maybe.

But there’s also a rumor that’s been circulating about a contract out on his life. Joe is supposed to be dispatched on Ash Wednesday and that’s not very far away. This surprises everyone – Joe has been a good soldier – but he must try to search it down.

We follow as he moves among a black mob leader whom he respects and who must be destroyed because he dared to kill two white mob members in order to save his own life. We see him visit a genuinely pathological mob boss who, with good reason, terrifies him. (“King Louis” lives on a houseboat purchased from Joe Kennedy, surrounded by guards who may or may not be cannibals.)

There’s a breathtaking shootout on Tampa’s streets and a truly shocking ending in the sugar fields of Cuba. This is the third and final book Lehane has written about Joe, his biological family and the growing mob but it stands alone easily.

Full of moral ambiguity, blood and brutality, it doesn’t stint at describing what exactly can constitute the wages of sin. (Hint: Those wages don’t necessarily center around all that blood.)

Janice Okun is the former food editor of The News. She is a lifelong devotee of crime fiction.