As a writer, George V. Higgins had a leg-breaker’s ability to grab you hard and pull you into an alley — a Boston alley, because none of his 26 novels transpired more than an hour or two outside the city. He was all business, his writing was lean, he knew the place and he knew how to tell a story.
Here’s the first line of his first novel, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”:
Jackie Brown at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.
With that, George Higgins puts you smack up against the unfolding story of his most famous creation, Eddie Coyle, an aging street criminal, a ham-and-egger, running guns to some pals who rob banks.
Coyle and his fictional friends were the underclass of the underclass and Higgins had imbibed and inhabited their world as a state and federal prosecutor of organized crime and then as a criminal defense attorney on the flip side.
“He knew the mean streets, he knew the high-falutin types as well, he knew the accents, he’s known for his dialogue,” said Boston Globe columnist Sam Allis. “No one can touch him for dialogue.”
Allis vividly recalls some of the scenes in the book that would also repeat themselves in the acclaimed movie of the same name. Like Eddie Coyle showing the four extra knuckles on his left hand to Jack Brown the gun dealer the first time they meet:
Know how I got those? 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 15 to 25. Still in there, but he had some friends.
Shut my hand in a drawer. Then one of them stomped the drawer shut.
Ever hear bones breaking? Just like a man snapping a shingle. Hurts like a bastard.
Long before the Sopranos and before Tarantino, George V. Higgins was giving unique natural voice to hoods and their wives, and even the low-level defense attorneys chasing their next case while the creditors chase them.
When Elmore Leonard called “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” the best crime novel ever written, he didn’t know George Higgins hated being called a crime writer.
“He saw himself as the Charles Dickens of crime in Boston instead of a crime writer,” Leonard said. “He just understood the human condition and he understood it most vividly in the language and actions among low lives.”
In the ‘6os and ’70s, reporter James Southwood delved into the same world of crime and deceit as Higgins did. The Old Town was dreary, down on its heels; Life Magazine dubbed Boston the murder capital of America; cops grew up with robbers and both were on the take.
Higgins draws it hard as diamonds.
“I can’t think of a greater Boston writer really,” Southwood said. “Higgins created his own genre and was the master of it.”
In almost all the novels he writes, and certainly the best ones, Higgins’ characters live in a vale of tears. Eddie Coyle tries to live by a code, just like he tries to feed his family, even if he can’t do either one.
“He was hopeless, hapless, tragic, doomed,” Sam Allis said of the Eddie Coyle character. “Never going to make it.”
For all of the fiction, Higgins and Coyle — real and artificial — shared the same world. Higgins trafficked with real-life Eddie Coyles. As a prosecutor, Higgins listened on wire taps as they plotted, interrogated them, cut deals with them and heard them sing for their supper. As a defense attorney, he heard all their excuses and then at their sentencing — what Higgins called “toothbrush day”– he heard them plead with the judge.
In one of his novels, an old career burglar tries to win a judge’s sympathy.
Harry resettled his thin shoulders inside the seedy blue suit that he keeps for such charades, along with the white broadcloth shirt with the 16-inch collar that looks like a drape around his 15-inch neck. “Makes them think that you’ve been sick, and they feel sorry for you. Curley pulled it when they let him out of Danbury. Got himself a pardon from President Truman, the old bastard. Works every time.”
His plots move in like a November storm, not black, but in all manner of grey.
“His books are marbled with cynicism, but they also have wonderful humanity into it and they show the hurt,” said Boston Globe columnist Sam Allis. “They show this guy taking out the trash and he didn’t have work and he had to do guns and he ultimately got killed. You came out of it with great affection for Eddie Coyle.”
George Higgins had an understanding for human failings made keener by his own sense of failings, say the friends of Higgins. One of them was Jimmy Southwood.
“Betrayal is the main theme in all of his works,” Southwood said. “I think he suffered betrayal in his own life as well as his fiction.”
In his novel, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” Eddie gives up the gun dealer Jackie Brown to a federal agent in order to stay out of prison, only to find out the agent wants more. Now, Eddie breaks the code and gives up his friends: the bank robbers.
Eddie looks like the rat. Yet the feds do nothing to protect him. His best friend Dillon gets the Mob contract to kill him. And it turns out Dillon was the real rat, a government informant working both sides of the street.
Close friend Michael Mone witnessed the commercial breakthrough of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”
“It’s a book about betrayal,” Mone said. “They betray: Dylan betrays Coyle, and prosecutors betray him.”
In the last act of the novel that was George Higgins opening act as a writer, Eddie’s executioner and best friend takes him to a Bruins game in the old Garden. Drunk on cheap beer in the nosebleed section, Eddie revels in Bruin’s star Bobby Orr: “Christ, No.4, Bobby Orr. What a future he’s got.”
Two pages later, Eddie’s futures ends three miles north on a road off Route 91, in a car with an emptied revolver.
With the stunning emancipation of this first success, Higgins dumped 17 previously unpublished ones in the town landfill as trash, then went on to write and publish 25 more. He was the toast of the town, a character playing George Higgins: trench-coated, heavy smoking, heavy drinking, brilliant but wet conversationalist and Locke-Ober regular.
Like Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins died of his own failings, just short of 60, 10 years ago this November. About Boston, he’d seen it all, heard it all, and told its stories.