IT'S NOT EASY to stick the landing of a sweeping American gangster trilogy. Just ask Francis Ford Coppola.

Dennis Lehane seems to have done it, though. World Gone By, his newest novel, is a continuation of 2012's Live by Night, itself a sequel to 2008's The Given Day. This third volume concludes the story of Irish American gangster Joe Coughlin, only a kid in the first book. While it's slimmer than its predecessors—less than half the length of The Given Day—it's filled with indelibly drawn characters and vibrant hints of history peeking through the seams. More importantly, it's a fantastic read.

Even if this is the first book of the Coughlin trilogy you've picked up, it's easy to get situated: Joe, ousted from his position as boss by the Italian syndicate, has settled into his role as consigliere for Dion Bartolo, his former childhood pal and henchman, now in charge of the organization. Coughlin's mainly a figurehead, able to grease the wheels between the legitimate and illegitimate businesses of Ybor City in 1943. There are connections to Batista's Havana to maintain, drugs from South America to ship north, and docks on Tampa Bay to protect. Coughlin's also responsible for raising his son, Tomas, following the violent death of his Cuban-born wife, Graciela.

Part of Lehane's skill is in the concision of his plotting, and World Gone By moves forward at a lean, pleasurable clip. We meet an assortment of fully lived-in characters, from a hitwoman named Theresa Del Frisco who offs her husband with a croquet mallet; to Montooth Dix, the impeccably garbed head of operations in Ybor City's segregated Negro district; to Dr. Ned Lenox, a once prominent St. Louis doctor whose fall from grace could stand as a separate short story. Coughlin encounters these and others—like King Lucius, a crime lord hidden in a houseboat up a swampy, slow-moving Florida river, surrounded by 20 drug-addled goons called "Androphagi" and rumored to be cannibals.

Lehane's sandbox is at the collision of actual 20th-century American history and the stories surrounding its infamous criminals, a mythology cultivated by years of Hollywood glamorizing. While indulging the escapist nature of these tales (and their inherent bloodiness), Lehane's interweaving of fact and fiction is masterful. Meyer Lansky and Carlos Marcello sit alongside the invented characters in the book, and the depiction of the criminal world at the onset of America's involvement in World War II feels authentic and comprehensively researched. Without overplaying it, Lehane coolly draws a parallel between the lieutenants and soldiers of these underground syndicates and those of the army fighting overseas.

The juicy, violent plotting of the novel also leaves room for some deeper thinky stuff. Lehane is fascinated by the morality of these men and the toll their dirty work impinges on their souls. There's even a ghost that follows Joe around, in what might be the book's most graceless move. Otherwise, Lehane expertly serves a breathless, fast-paced gangster adventure—yes, let's call it an adventure—while offering plenty to chew on after you've devoured it.