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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
George V. Higgins, who died in 1999 at the absurdly early age of 59, was an American original, a man who made a unique -- and inimitable -- contribution to the development of the modern crime novel. In the course of his career, which spanned 27 years and resulted in more than 30 books, Higgins wrote with passion, wit, and a fierce integrity about a wide variety of subjects: sports, business, politics, the law, the art and craft of writing. But what he did best -- did better, in fact, than any other novelist before or since -- was to dramatize the squalid, anything-for-a-dollar lives of the liars, losers, and two-bit gangsters who inhabited the interstices of his native Boston. His most famous exploration of that peculiar milieu was The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which was first published in 1972 and remains, to this day, an absolute model of its kind.
The eponymous Eddie Coyle is a typical Higgins Everyman, a fringe player for the Boston mob whose life is spiraling out of control. As the novel opens, Eddie is 45 years old, unhappily married, and more than a little desperate. In addition to the usual stress of a life lived on the edge, Eddie is about to face sentencing for his role in an aborted hijacking that took place in New Hampshire the year before. Offered a reduced sentence in return for naming his compatriots, Eddie refused, and he is about to relearn one of the fundamental lessons of the street: Stand-up guys always end up in jail.
While awaiting sentencing, Eddie continues to scuffle for a buck. His latest hustle involves purchasing handguns from an ex-Hell's Angel, then reselling those guns to a local Boston hoodlum, who puts them to use in a cleverly planned, ultimately tragic series of robberies that Higgins describes in crisp, authoritative prose. Early in the novel, while taking delivery of several new weapons, Eddie glimpses a small cache of rifles -- M-16s stolen from a local military base -- in the trunk of the gun dealer's car. Seizing this opportunity, Eddie forsakes the unwritten code of the streets and becomes an informer. He notifies a Boston-based federal agent about the stolen weapons, trading one man's freedom for what he hopes will be a lighter sentence. Nothing, of course, works exactly as planned, and Eddie soon finds himself a marked man, trapped in a web of coincidental occurrences and conflicting agendas. In the end, he pays for his defection in a violent, ironic denouement in which a primitive form of frontier justice prevails.
Higgins populates Eddie's tawdry little corner of Boston with an authentic, vividly created assortment of lowlifes, including: Jackie Brown, the street-smart gun dealer forced to learn what it really means to be a stand-up guy; Dave Foley, the cynical Treasury agent whose "promises" to his informants prove glib and insubstantial; Jimmy Scalisi, a professional thief whose casual mistreatment of his girlfriend has unexpected consequences; and Dillon, the ubiquitous bartender whose actual role in the shadowy world of the Boston mob is only gradually disclosed.
Higgins understood these people, most of whom -- criminal tendencies aside -- are disconcertingly similar to many of "us." They drink too much, worry about their mortgages, bet more than they can afford on horses and professional sports, endure combative, often violent, relationships with their wives and mistresses, and gaze helplessly at the world around them, wondering why everything has gone so badly wrong. And, of course, they talk, colorfully and endlessly, about the sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious circumstances of their lives.
It has, by now, become something of a cliché to describe George Higgins as a "master of dialogue," but that, in fact, is what he was. Higgins's ear for the rhythms of human speech -- for the shrewd, funny, obscene, discursive monologues that form the heart of so much of his work -- was uncanny and unprecedented, and has exerted an influence on the novels and stories of a great many writers who followed in his footsteps, such as Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, David Mamet, and John Gregory Dunne, to name only a few. In Higgins's novels, dialogue was always the single most important element of narrative, and it served a variety of functions: illuminating character, creating a sense of personal and historical context, advancing the often convoluted plots. No writer in recent years has so effectively utilized the idiosyncrasies of the human voice. No one, really, has come close.
A few years ago, in one of those eternally popular attempts at creative list making, mystery connoisseur Otto Penzler asked a number of prominent suspense writers to name their ten favorite crime novels. Elmore Leonard, who learned as much from Higgins's distinctive technique as anyone, gave what was perhaps the most provocative response, placing The Friends of Eddie Coyle in all ten slots. It's easy, on reflection, to sympathize with Leonard's choice. George V. Higgins was, after all, that kind of writer, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle remains that kind of book. (Bill Sheehan)