Unions, civil rights, police brutality and molasses

Novels that are also a history lesson are not uncommon, but frequently boring. Novels that are also a history lesson but still entertaining are much harder to find. On top of which, unions, civil rights and police brutality are not topics that generally attract me to books. 

But a novel that brings you history, unions, civil rights and a cracking good page-turning yarn – well, that’s a rare trick. So hats off to Dennis Lehane and his Coughlin family trilogy.

It is as if Mario Puzo’s The Godfather had been written so brilliantly that you could see the film that Francis Ford Coppola might make of it right there, on the page.

Except, reading The Godfather, you can only marvel at the riches Coppola extracted from Puzo’s ok but hardly stunning potboiler.

With Lehane, it’s a tougher call. To date the handful of movies made from his books – Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island – have been less than the books themselves, because the books are bloody marvellous to start with.

The Coughlin trilogy steps it up several notches. Which means anyone attempting to film them has an intimidating task, because the books should yield a movie trilogy every bit as rich and powerful as The Godfather Pts 1, 2 and 3.

Clint Eastwood (Mystic River), Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island) and Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) all failed to deliver. As films go, they were ok, and for some who never read the books, River and Island rate pretty highly. But the wit and sexiness at the heart of Gone, for instance, were missing. It speaks for itself that none of the other five Kenzie & Gennaro books – of which Gone was fourth in a series – have been filmed.

Still, Affleck is having another crack at Lehane, starting with the middle book of the Coughlin trilogy, 2012’s Live By Night.

It’s a clever choice. Live By Night – like The Godfather – is a rip-roaring tale of gangsters and politicians and tragedy, whereas the first of the three – The Given Day – provides the wherewithal for that rarest of all things – a movie sequel that is better than the original. (The final book, last year’s World Gone By, will be a must-watch movie if the first two are successful. It’s certainly a must-read novel).

The Given Day starts in the immediate aftermath of The First World War, when the H1N1 flu pandemic affected at least half a billion people, killing between 10-20% of them (nearly 5% of the world’s population at the time).

The Coughlin family is a dynasty-in-the-making, of Irish extraction. Tom Coughlin is a Police Captain in the Boston Police Department, having left home in Ireland and stowed away on an American-bound ship, aged 15.

The book is laced with such delicious detail that you thank God for the internet. Can it be true that police – who put their lives on the line every day, and cannot strike for better conditions – were paid less than poverty wages? Yes, it can. As was the fact that their work premises were rat- and bug-infested, and that they were frequently expected to sleep at the station, suffering the bed-bugs. so as to be on-site for their shift.

One character after another turns out to be from real life. Events that seem unbelievable turn out to have been true. The Bolshevik assassin whose bomb exploded prematurely as he made his way up the path to US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home. Caught in the blast, and first on the scene to help – Franklin D Roosevelt, who lived across the street.

You literally could not make this stuff up. The Great Molasses Flood of 1919? Oh yes! A tank 50ft tall and 90 ft in diameter collapsed at the Purity Distilling Company, unleashing 2.5 million gallons of molasses to race through the streets at 35mph. At its height, the molasses wave was 25ft tall. It killed countless horses and 21 people, injuring another 150. When it settled, several blocks of the city were flooded to a depth of two to three feet.

At the time, the Mayor of Boston, married with six children, was carousing with his 14-year-old ‘mistress’, a cousin of his wife’s named Starr Faithful. When in doubt, Google. It’s all true.

At the heart of the story is the relationship between Captain Thomas Coughlin and his oldest son, Danny, also a policeman. Danny is gradually radicalised by what he sees around him. The details of corruption, the first ‘Red Scare’ (post the Russian revolution, Bolsheviks were out in the world, proselytising, agitating and assassinating) and the beginnings of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (The NAACP) are woven skilfully and rivetingly into an epic tale that will probably never leave you, once read.

An apparently minor character is Thomas’s youngest son Joe. But he is central to the rest of the trilogy. Knowing this (I happened to read the second book some time ago, unknowing that it was part of a series) helps to pick up clues to his character development.

Also woven through the story are events from Babe Ruth’s life. Indeed, the book starts with a vignette where Babe and some team-mates comes across African-Americans playing a baseball match among themselves. The challenge that ensues, and the consequences of the black teams superiority brilliantly sets up what is to follow.

Get reading now, before the films are made. You will not regret it. It’s a forlorn hope that Ben Affleck could be capable of Francis Ford Coppola-like classic-epic storytelling. But even if it transpires that he is, your appreciation can only be enhanced by first having devoured these books.





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