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On Crime

The fans of Eddie Coyle

By Hallie Ephron
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2010

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About 40 years ago, George V. Higgins’s debut novel, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,’’ shocked and awed readers and reviewers. Its protagonist was emphatically unheroic; his friends were ordinary knuckleheads. Their stories were anything but the high opera of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.’’

A 40th anniversary edition has been published with an introduction by Dennis Lehane. It’s still a great read, as fresh as ever since no one, not even Higgins himself, has managed to write another book quite like it.

The story is simple. Eddie “Fingers” Coyle resells guns to “friends’’ like small-time hood Jackie Brown and bank robbers Jimmy Scalisi and Artie Van. Eddie’s got a wife and kids and a no-show job, all of which barely get mentioned. Convicted for driving a truckload of stolen liquor, he is facing sentencing and certain jail time. The only way out is to sell information about a friend or two to federal agent Dave Foley, a man he knows is not his friend.

We know what’s coming because Eddie is not all that smart. “I bought some stuff from a man that I had his name, and it got traced, and the man I bought it for, he went to MCI Walpole for fifteen to twenty-five. Still in there, but he had some friends. I got an extra set of knuckles. Shut my hand in a drawer. Then one of them stomped the drawer shut. . . . You got no idea how it hurt.’’ Eddie goes on to say that the guys who hurt him were “matter of fact,’’ telling him that “it isn’t anything personal, you understand, but it just had to be done.’’

The novel’s ending is as banal as it is predictable, and that is Higgins’s point. The only question is when Eddie’s friends will do him in. It’s nothing personal — just like Eddie, his buddies would readily betray him if it meant getting out of jail. The criminal justice system with its equally pedestrian DAs and investigators feeds off this desperation.

Higgins was a 32-year-old Stanford graduate who’d written Chevrolet ads, covered crime as a reporter for the Providence Journal, and worked as a prosecutor on organized crime cases in Boston when “Friends” came out. He’d written 14 unpublished novels, and when his agent read “Friends,” he dumped Higgins, saying the manuscript was unsaleable.

In a telephone interview, Lehane said, “What’s so daring about the book is that [Eddie] is just a schlub. There’s nothing romantic in the world of Eddie Coyle. No noble gangster. No Shakespearean themes. Just this grungy world. That’s what Higgins nailed so perfectly.’’

Scene setting and character description are spare, and there is no internal dialogue because the story is narrated in a flat, distanced third-person. There’s nothing to crowd the knock-your-socks-off dialogue, lines like this one that read so fresh they could have been dragged, verbatim, off a wiretap, but so stunning that they’re clearly the work of an artist: “Arthur’s as tight as a popcorn fart when he’s on the job,’’ the second man said, ‘but you sit him away some place where he’s got too much time to think and he’s dangerous. He’d [have sex with] a dog with scarlet fever to get parole.’’

As Lehane writes, “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.’’

In his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,’’ Raymond Chandler credited Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,’’ the other game-changing crime novel of the 20th century, with taking “murder out of the Venetian vase’’ and dropping it “in the alley.’’ But “Falcon” is about a man’s devotion to a friend. Coyle has no friends. And Higgins did just what Chandler says of Hammett, he “wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.’’

Higgins bristled when H.R.F. Keating, The Times of London crime-fiction critic, called him a crime writer. “I’m a novelist,’’ was the rebuff. He was influenced, he said, by the writings of O’Hara and Hemingway, not Chandler and Hammett. Regardless, “Friends” profoundly affected the genre. His legacy: the dialogue-driven novel.

This back and forth between a prosecutor and defense attorney ends the book with much more of a poetic whimper than a bang:

“Does anything ever change in this racket?

“Hey, Foss,’’ the prosecutor said, taking Clark by the arm, “of course it changes. Don’t take it so hard. Some of us die, the rest of us get older, the new guys come along, old guys disappear. It changes every day.’’

‘It’s hard to notice, though,’’ Clark said.

‘It is,’’ the prosecutor said, ‘it certainly is.’’

Hallie Ephron is the author of “Never Tell a Lie.” Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE
By George V. Higgins
Picador, 192 pp, paperback, $14