(Editor’s note: This is the 57th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s choice comes from William Landay, who won the John Creasey Dagger Award for his first novel, Mission Flats . He has since had published a second book: the historical crime thriller The Strangler , about a Beantown family working both sides of the law during the fearful reign of the Boston Strangler. Check out Landay’s blog here.)
Imagine George V. Higgins around 1970 or so, as he contemplated the book that would become The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Thirty-one years old, he was a junior-grade federal prosecutor in Boston. For years Higgins had dreamed of becoming a writer. He was the son of two schoolteachers, and he had been writing novels since he was 15. But as an author, he was a flop. Publishers had consistently rejected him. Already he had more unpublished novels than he had fingers to count them. In person, he was a high-low character: bookish and long-faced, with a fancy graduate degree from Stanford in creative writing; but also charming, a double-eagle from Boston College with a gift of gab, at ease with cops and juries. He admired Ernest Hemingway and John O’Hara, understandably.
Now, sitting in his office in the old federal courthouse in Boston’s Post Office Square, Higgins was surrounded by transcripts, as all prosecutors are--transcripts of trials, motion hearings, grand jury testimony, interrogations, not to mention the endless stream of police reports. Thousands of pages. Tapes, too, reel-to-reel tapes of FBI and state-police wiretaps. He would say later, “I listened to so many wiretaps and I read so many transcripts of wiretaps that quite unintentionally I became aware of the patterns of elision and compression that people use.”
What Higgins heard in those transcripts and tapes was an authentically new voice in crime fiction. Or, more accurately, an old voice that had never been captured. It was the real, everyday speech of ordinary cops and criminals. It sounded nothing like the scripted lines you heard in crime operas such as The Godfather or slick thrillers like The Day of the Jackal, which then dominated the bestseller lists. Nor did it sound like the stylized patter of hard-boiled pulps, where knock-around guys like Mike Hammer were oddly well-spoken. What Higgins heard were the louts and knuckleheads of Boston’s crime world running off at the mouth. They broke off conversations mid-sentence or looped around in crazy tangents. They mumbled, stumbled, spoke in code, mangled common phrases; sometimes they made no sense at all.
I think Higgins must have known: here was the voice for
his novels, finally.
He managed to capture it in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. “I bought some stuff from a man that I had his name.” “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody.” “You can give me a whole ration of shit and this and that, and blah, blah, blah. But you, you’re still a kid and you’re going out and coming around and saying: ‘Well, I’m a man, and you can take what I say and it’ll happen. I go through.’” That dialogue--the carefully crafted naturalism, the artful authenticity--is the breakthrough achievement of Eddie Coyle.
It is hard now, almost 40 years later, to appreciate how revelatory Higgins’ writing was back in 1972. In an ecstatic review in The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote, “One feels as if one were reading a transcript of a Grand Jury hearing or listening to a tape in a planted recorder.”
Elmore Leonard, in his introduction to the Holt paperback edition, recalls reading Eddie Coyle when it first came out. “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free. So this was how you do it. … To me it was a revelation.” Leonard has called it “the best crime novel ever written.”
Eddie Coyle was a revelation to me, as well. I was a young assistant D.A. when I first read it, another Boston College Law grad with literary aspirations. I worked in Cambridge then, across the river from Higgins’ old office. I had never read the book. I was only 8 when it came out, and later I was never much of a crime-novel fan anyway. But when I hit the first page, I had the same reaction Leonard did: so this is how you do it.
The plot is simple. Eddie Coyle is a small-time hustler. He is not especially good at his work. On his left hand he has an extra set of knuckles: one of his screw-ups sent a man to prison, and Coyle’s fingers were smashed in a drawer as punishment. (“Ever hear bones breaking? Just like a man snapping a shingle. Hurts like a bastard.”) He is 45 years old. His wife nags him. His kids get picked on at school because their father is a crook. “I’m getting old,” Coyle says. “I spent my whole life sitting around in one crummy joint after another with a bunch of punks like you, drinking coffee, eating hash, and watching other people take off for Florida while I got to sweat how the hell I’m going to pay the plumber next week.”
Coyle is facing a federal sentence for driving a truckload of stolen booze. Desperate to make a little money for his family before he goes in, Coyle makes one last score. He buys guns from a dealer named Jackie Brown and then resells them to a gang that has been robbing banks in the Boston suburbs. But Coyle still hopes to avoid prison, so he takes a chance and rats out Jackie Brown to the feds, expecting they will put in a good word with the sentencing judge. Ultimately both Jackie Brown and the bank robbers are picked up, and they all suspect Coyle is the rat.
But that cornered-man story is the least interesting thing about The Friends of Eddie Coyle. What makes it live is the way Higgins hands the book over to his characters. He lets them talk. And talk and talk. They rattle on about women and Bobby Orr and Hare Krishnas. The book clocks in at a scant 183 pages, yet there is still time for two cops to discuss the proper way to make a cheese sandwich (add mayonnaise) and for two gunrunners to chat about the fart-inducing properties of fried eggs. As much as possible, Higgins allows his characters to narrate the plot, too. They relate their own back stories to one another. Even action scenes are described in dialogue: Higgins will skip a critical event, then immediately cut to a conversation where a character describes what happened.
When Higgins is forced to step on stage as narrator, his prose is stripped. The sentences are terse, descriptive, and short, as if the author cannot wait to slip out of sight and get his characters talking again. He does not digress and he never comments on his characters’ behavior. There is not a theme, a lesson, or an idea anywhere in sight. With one exception--a truly awful passage in which Higgins intrudes to relate a character’s interior thoughts, a gauzy memory of seeing a rattlesnake on a lake shore--Higgins never calls attention to his writing. Nor is he interested in suspense or violence. What little bloodshed there is in the novel is described almost in passing--no gore, no sensationalism. (“The first shot went in nicely.”)
The reason for all of this rigorous economy is that Higgins is not interested in the mechanics of advancing the plot, really. He is interested in the characters and the world they inhabit. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a novel of manners. Eddie Coyle, Jackie Brown, and the other Boston hoods are bound by codes of conduct as rigid as anything in Jane Austen. They must act with tact and strategy to get what they want, just as the Bennett sisters did.
I don’t know if The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the best crime novel ever written, as Elmore Leonard believes. It is the best I’ve read, certainly, and the best novel of any kind about Boston. Lots of novels that came after were influenced by it, Leonard’s own novels among them. But not a single novel that came before The Friends of Eddie Coyle sounds remotely like it. That is a pretty good definition
of a masterpiece.
READ MORE: “Best Boston Movie Ever: The Friends of
Eddie Coyle,” by William Landay.