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George V. Higgins: An Appreciation of Boston’s Balzac

Decayed Telephone, Old Mine Building, Recklinghausen, Germany, 2006While clerking at a chain bookstore in Norfolk, Virginia a zillion years ago, I once watched in wonder at how a particular customer went about choosing her reading material. She was a regular, who worked in one of the nearby office buildings and who came in to get a book on her lunch break on a weekday. She went to the paperback fiction section and started looking through some of the books there in a manner that seemed both frantic and haphazard: not bothering with such trivialities as authors’ names, plot descriptions, critics’ sound-bites, etc. she ignored the front and back covers of the books while hurriedly flipping through the innards, doing quick scans of chunks of pages in each book, before moving on to the next one and performing the same curious inventory. After she’d been at this for a while, the woman she came in with left the magazine rack and came over to where she was, watched her for a few seconds, then giggled and said, “What are you doing?” The first woman shrugged her shoulders, smiled in a “I don’t care if you don’t approve of this, it’s just how I am” way, and said, “I’m looking for one that has a lot of dialogue in it. I like stories that have a lot of talking in them.”

That woman may or may not be someone who would appreciate the subject matter and characters in the novels of George V. Higgins, but she certainly would not be let down by how much talking there is in them. And Higgins may or may not have coveted her as an appreciative reader of his books, but her sentiment as to what makes a story worth reading, is one to which Higgins would have been fully sympathetic. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Higgins’s first published novel (1972) and still the title he is best known for, is largely comprised of dialogue between its seedy characters. And while Higgins delved more into things like descriptions of people and places, and narrative overviews of situations, in the 25 or so novels he wrote after Coyle, his books continued to be dominated by “a lot of talking” throughout his writing career.

Not everyone is won over by Higgins’s heavy use of dialogue in his novels.  Look at the customer reviews of his books on Amazon and, alongside plenty of raves, you’ll find many complaints of “no action,” “no real story being told,” “the whole book is just people talking.”  In his obituary of Higgins (he died in 1999, of a heart attack, not long before what would have been his 60th birthday) for the U.K.’s The Independent, writer Jack Adrian called Higgins a “one-book man” and grumbled about a lack of various kinds of narrative effects in GVH’s novels. But Higgins, who surely heard many of these gripes in his lifetime, stuck to his belief that the best and most entertaining way to tell a story is by having its elements come out through the conversations of its characters. By remaining mostly clear of lengthy narrative passages, and zeroing in on his characters’ chatter, he forced the reader to pay close attention to those conversations if they wanted to follow the storylines. If the people in his books often come off as faceless, well, again, Higgins was removing all other distractions in order to force the reader to just listen.  In his book On Writing, a treatise on the craft that he wrote for beginning wordsmiths, Higgins has this to say about his reliance on dialogue:

Many of my critics seem to feel that they have to say, or strongly imply, that my gift for dialog is all I have; or that writing dialog is not the most important attribute a novelist can have . . .  A man or woman who does not write good dialog is not a first-rate writer. I do not believe that a writer who neglects or has not learned to write good dialog can be depended on for accuracy in his understanding of character and in his creation of characters. Therefore to dismiss good dialog so lightly is evidence of a critic’s incomplete understanding of what constitutes a good novel.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle – which Ross MacDonald called “powerful and frightening,” Dennis Lehane in 2010 called “the game changing crime novel of the last fifty years,” and Elmore Leonard called “the best crime novel ever written” – was actually the 15th novel Higgins wrote, but the first one accepted for publication (he ultimately destroyed the manuscripts of the first 14).  It is an uncompromising, steel-cold account of a group of small time criminals working the hardened streets of Boston. Like Ted Lewis’s 1971 Brit Grit classic Jack’s Return Home (later renamed Get Carter after the landmark film made from it), one thing that sets Eddie Coyle apart from even other works of hard-nosed noir, is the fact that nearly every character in it is purely rotten. There is no hero, not even an anti-hero, that you can get behind. Every two-faced cop, every black market gun seller, every cold-blooded thief, and especially the title character, is simply out to get his, and other people are there merely to be used in whatever way they can help a guy get what he needs. There’s an understanding between all these greasy individuals that they are all exploiting one another – a tacit agreement that this is just the way the stinking world works, and if you don’t want to get left bleeding to death in an alley, or rotting in prison, you better just use whomever you can to forward your own personal agenda.  It’s a quietly harrowing book that you won’t be able to put down once you start it, or shake from your thoughts after you close the last, grim page. And it’s one my old customer from the Norfolk bookshop would have surely snatched up and purchased if she’d flipped thought its pages – because it’s made up in large part by people talking. The Friends of Eddie Coyle was made into a film of the same title in 1973, with both Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle putting on stellar performances in portraying two of the crooks.

BW PokerAlthough they’ve never gotten the same critical recognition as his published debut, Higgins’s two follow-ups to Eddie Coyle are both minor masterpieces of no-nonsense noir. The Digger’s Game (’73) and Cogan’s Trade (’74), both examine, in compelling fashion, the goings-on of Boston area mobsters. The sheer economy of word usage and the blunt depictions of heists, hits for revenge, and the deals and arrangements made for these types of activities – again, most of this told by way of characters talking to one another – make these books standouts of edgy crime fiction.  These novels contain something like 80% dialogue, and now Higgins was better and better at having his characters’ personalities come through in their conversations, as these thugs make constant chit-chat about their love lives, their cars, the state of modern society as they see it, and sports (almost always the Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots, and Celtics – Higgins was born in Massachusetts and lived his entire life in that state, outside of a few years he spent as a graduate student at Stanford). The deadpan tone of the characters’ speech, along with the minimalist narration and the tension involved in the grave deeds being performed, creates an overall effect that is at once mesmerizing and unsettling. Cogan’s Trade is being made into a film, to be released in 2012 and featuring the same team of director/screenwriter Andrew Domink and actors Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, and Sam Rockwel, behind the 2007 movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Prolific and steady, Higgins went on to publish an average of a book a year for the rest of his life. The vast majority were works of fiction, although he did the instructive text for writers, a (failed) book about Watergate, and a Red Sox-focused discourse on baseball. He wrote novels that depicted the inside workings of the political world – A City on a Hill (’75) was the first, and it doesn’t go much of anywhere, while A Choice of Enemies (’84) is a rollicking tale of mass political corruption, and the book that Higgins in 1989 or ’90 told one interviewer was his own personal favorite of his titles up to that point. He also wrote a four-volume series of books around the character of defense attorney Jerry Kennedy – Higgins himself was a lawyer, initially as prosecutor who tried the kinds of characters depicted in his crime novels, then later as a defense lawyer; he also worked as a newspaper columnist and college professor.

Like his first three, many of Higgins’s later crime novels focus on the doings of the “bad guys,” but one of his very finest books, 1976’s The Judgment of Deke Hunter, studies the life – and soul – of a beaten-down plainclothes cop.  Higgins made his mark by writing the stripped-down prose of his earliest crime books, and while the characters in those novels are as brutally no-nonsense as the plotlines, later in his career he got more expansive. Over time his characters became more animated, many of them outrageously over the top, and Higgins’s writing became riotously funny in many instances. The best examples of Higgins working in this unrestrained mode are The Rat on Fire (’81), about some sleazeballs who commit arson for personal gain, and Trust (’89), which follows the doings of a ne’er-do-well former college basketball star turned shady car salesman; both of these books are uproariously hilarious, rich with unforgettably despicable characters, and both read something like an unholy meeting of Dickens, Balzac, A Confederacy of Dunces (imagine Ignatius J. Reilly as a slumlord or blackmailing petty thief), and a Tarantino film.

Not all of his books worked, though. The Kennedy series, Patriot Game (’82), and Outlaws (’87), all start out promisingly enough, but are the kinds of novels you can set down for good, after reading half of them, without suffering the feeling that you’re going to miss out on much if you don’t ever pick them up again. Swan Boats at Four (’95), in which Higgins left off of his usual low-life characters to tell the story of a troubled banking executive, is just plain dull.

Higgins continued to use massive amounts of dialogue to propel all these later books, although he did, as previously noted, work more and more narration into them, as well. And while he was always a master at using characters’ conversations as a means of making them come off as believable, and to make their stories interesting, in his later career Higgins got too much in the habit of having the people in his books continuously go off on unending speeches. He got too enamored with these soliloquies, and too far away from the kinds of clipped, back and forth conversations that drove his earlier works.   Another flaw in some of his mid-to-late period books is that some of them simply had too many subplots, many of these side story lines not all that interesting, and serving to take away from the more compelling characters and story parts, thus making the whole convoluted and a frustratingly uneven read.

Around 1990, Higgins, disillusioned by what he found to be lukewarm critical reception to his books, told one interviewer that he was done – wasn’t going to write any more. Of course this is not what happened, the author instead continuing to pace himself and produce about a book a year right up to his death. His final literary effort, At End of Day (2000), was published posthumously.

Interestingly, Higgins loathed being called a crime writer, even though he is noted for authoring groundbreaking works of the form, even though the vast majority of his novels revolve around crime, and even though he was writing crime novels right up to his last days – At End of Day is yet another story that follows the exploits of mobsters. But Higgins wanted to be known simply as a “novelist” and bristled at the notion that he was a member of the crime-writing world. Certainly his panoramic depictions of the people, places and goings-on in and around Boston, made him similar to a Balzac or Dickens, in being a social novelist out to capture the heart and soul of a major city in a particular era.  And many have compared his early crime novels favorably with Hemingway’s masterly, hard-boiled short story “The Killers.” So if Higgins wanted the right to called a genre-free literary novelist he had an argument to make; but the fact remains that his best books are crime novels.

George V. Higgins’s first three published books are all stunningly effective works of crime fiction that bear their author’s unmistakable personal stamp. After that trio his output got spotty, but over the next two and a half decades he wrote another handful of gems; and even his fair-to-middling books are rich with memorable characters and entertaining storylines. And throughout his entire career, from 1972’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle to 2000’s At End of Day, Higgins ignored his critics and boldly held on to his belief in the power of dialogue as a means by which to tell a good yarn; he never stopped doing what my customer at the chain bookshop thought a good writer should do in his or her novels – he kept putting a lot of talking in them.

Here’s hoping the forthcoming Cogan’s Trade movie will bring a new generation of readers to the work of an under-appreciated master.


Brian Greene’s short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in 15 different publications since 2008. He writers regularly for Shindig!, a U.K.-based music magazine with worldwide distribution. Greene currently lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina, but he originally comes from the Higgins-friendly turf of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.