This is more than merely a book review.
I own one other novel written by George V. Higgins. It was his last, as it turns out. At End of the Day (which I guess was a prophetic title, now that I think about it) was published in the year 2000. Higgins died in November 1999, just shy of his 60th birthday, so that novel was published posthumously. I own it in hardcover, and I’m willing to bet I picked it up from a bargain rack. I knew nothing about Higgins when I purchased it, and I still haven’t read it. I’m sure I will someday, if God grants me the time.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle was George V. Higgins’ first novel, published way back in 1970. I just finished reading the 40th Anniversary edition, with an introduction by author Dennis Lehane, and even it was published ten years ago. That means this review is for a fifty-year-old novel.
Are you still with me?
I told you at the beginning of this post that this was more than just a book review. I’m going to tell you why I’ve read the first novel of a writer whose work I’ve never read before, fifty years after it was published. There would have to be a reason, wouldn’t there?
I’ve written before about my love of good character dialogue (most recently here ). Character-driven fiction—which is my favorite type—travels pretty much arm-in-arm with well-executed dialogue. In film and television, Aaron Sorkin provides many excellent examples. As does Quentin Tarentino. I mentioned Kevin Smith in my post, but I just watched the Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, so I’m reluctant to namedrop Smith as a good example of anything at the moment. My favorite authors also write (or wrote) good dialogue. John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Douglas Adams, Lawrence Block, Robert B. Parker — to name just a few.
On several occasions, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was offered as an example of well-written fictional dialogue. It has also been hailed as the novel that kicked off Boston noir as a crime fiction subgenre, influencing such writers as the aforementioned Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane, among many others. When I read that Elmore Leonard counted George V. Higgins, along with Ernest Hemingway, among his influences, I realized that I had to read Higgins’ first novel. Unlike many of the books I read, this one didn’t collect dust on my bookshelf. I ordered it on Amazon and began to read it the moment it arrived at my home.
It is a short novel, and a quick read because of all the dialogue. It may seem a little dated. Five decades has a tendency to have that effect. Earlier writers of crime fiction, such as Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald, may have earned a reputation for their crisp, tough dialogue, but these “talking” parts were merely breaks in their convoluted, exposition-heavy plots. In Eddie Coyle, the entire plot is carried almost solely on the back of the dialogue. What action exists in the novel becomes more impactful because of this fact.
Not that there’s much in the way of action, however. If you’re looking for fistfights and shootouts, or car chases and explosions, you’re not going to be satisfied with this story. This is the tale of a low-level hood, Eddie Coyle AKA Eddie “Fingers,” who is making an attempt to lighten his sentence at an upcoming hearing by trading some information with members of the opposition. I won’t say the “good guys” here because there’s little sense of good & bad guys here, just characters who are usually, but not always, on opposing sides. The story of how this plays out for Eddie is told in the form of conversations between characters. The way the book ends suggests that George V. Higgins himself, who was a lawyer, may have become a bit cynical at how the legal system works.
I wholeheartedly recommend this novel for any writer who wants to see how dialogue can carry the weight of a story. There are better crime novels out there if you’re just seeking entertainment. Pretty much anything by Elmore Leonard, for instance.
Firewater’s Some-of-Us-Die-the-Rest-of-Us-Get-Older Report Card: B
In his introduction to this edition, Dennis Lehane said this was one of the four or five best crime novels ever written. I don’t strictly agree with that and think Lehane has even written better. But, it’s better-than-average.