What does it take for a novel to become iconic—to embody the essence of an era and become a classic in its genre? Clearly, a book needs to feature some aspect of style, characterization, or plotting that sets a new trend. For example, take The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe were early avatars of the hard-boiled detective that later became a cliche. But what was the origin of the sort of dialogue-heavy prose that Elmore Leonard was so good at? That, as best I can tell, began with George V. Higgins’s classic Boston crime novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Award-winning author Dennis Lehane notes in an Introduction to the book’s 40th anniversary edition that dialogue “takes up a good eighty percent of the novel, and you wouldn’t mind if it took up the full hundred.” In fact, by my reckoning, the proportion is a lot closer to one hundred percent. “No one, before or since, has ever written dialogue this scabrous, this hysterically funny, this pungently authentic—not Elmore Leonard, who cites this novel as a primary influence, not Richard Price, not even George V. Higgins himself.”
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1972) 193 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Dialogue that’s wondrous to behold
The dialogue in this story is, indeed, wondrous to behold. It’s not always instantly understandable. Like real-world speech, getting the gist of it requires listening to it in context and filling in a few blanks along the way. For instance, here’s Eddie Coyle talking to another guy: “You know how it is, you’re talking to somebody and he says something and the next fellow says something, and the first thing you know, you heard something.”
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a story about cops and robbers. Eddie Coyle is a small-time hood in Boston who’s known as Eddie Fingers because he “got his hand busted up after they put Billy Wallace away for a long time on a gun that he bought from somebody.” Eddie’s hard up for money, but he knows some things he’s not supposed to know, and maybe what he knows is enough to get him off the hook on a rap up in New Hampshire. Dave Foley, a cop Eddie knows, isn’t sure, but he’ll give it a try.
Meanwhile, four or five local guys are robbing banks in the area. Apparently, Eddie has some sort of connection to the guns involved in the robberies. Eddie doesn’t rob banks himself; he’s a thief. But it’s hard to sort out who’s doing what. All we know is, it doesn’t look good for Eddie.
Little wonder that The Friends of Eddie Coyle is considered THE classic Boston crime novel.
About the author
Before he turned to writing novels, George V. Higgins worked as a deputy assistant attorney general for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and as an Assistant United States Attorney. Later, he become a journalist and newspaper columnist and taught at Boston College and Boston University. Higgins was the author of 29 books, mostly novels about Boston-area gangsters, as well as a handful of nonfiction books.
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