There are two distinct ironies in the title of George V. Higgins’s landmark 1970 novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The first is the word “friends” to describe the collection of folks on both sides of the law who Coyle tries to get over on in order to get out of an upcoming prison sentence (of course, most of these folks are looking to use or set up Coyle in turn). The second irony is that Eddie Coyle (aka Eddie Fingers aka “the stocky man”) is not so much the headliner here as he is the catalyst in a sharp and gritty tale of Boston gangsters, gunrunners, student radicals, cops, state police, and federal agents.
Like David Simon did three decades later in his Baltimore opus The Wire, Higgins throws his audience into the deep end. Coyle features almost no exposition. Instead Higgins, a former U.S. Attorney, forwards his intricate and fast-paced plot using machine-gun dialogue. While many crime writers fall for the lure of hyperbolic argot, Higgins’s dialogue rings very true and very raw. He trusts the reader to sort out the complex relationships between hustlers and dupes, cops and finks from their conversations alone; the rest of the prose is reserved for tight, cinematic descriptions of gritty urban Boston at the end of the 1960s. The imagery is straight out of a Scorcese film, and like that director, Higgins has a wonderful gift for showing his audience action without getting in the way. Coyle features a description of a bank robbery that is so clean, precise, and sharp that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that someone somewhere had used it as a how-to manual.
Higgins also spares authorial intrusion when it comes to a moral voice in his novel. There are certainly bad guys here, to be sure, but they are complex and human, just like the cops and feds who hunt them. In this sense, Coyle is the prototype of a type of crime fiction that came to rise in the cinema of the ’70s–gritty actioners that viewed crime and punishment through a lens of absolute ambiguity. At the same time, Coyle doesn’t unravel into a mere shaggy dog story–there’s a definite conclusion to the story here, even if it doesn’t satisfy the district attorney who tries to make sense of it all (like, in a metaphysical sense) at the end.
I’ve read more crime fiction in the past year than I ever have before, inspired perhaps by “The Part About the Crimes” in Bolaño’s 2666 or Jonathan Lethem’s forays into noir. I wrote a little bit about this the other week when I praised Denis Johnson’s noveau-noir exercise Nobody Move for its purity and its “willingness to be what it is” (whatever that means). (The tone of Nobody Move is downright lighthearted next to Coyle. Not that they need to be compared–I enjoyed both very much). What I did not directly address in that post is my own prejudice against genre fiction, a prejudice that inflamed me in my early teens to such a degree that I probably outright disregarded a lot of great writing. But there’s always more great writing out there than one can read in a lifetime, so why dwell on the past? Suffice to say that The Friends of Eddie Coyle should correct any prejudicial notions of the limits of crime fiction. Highly recommended.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle 40th Anniversary Edition with a new introduction by Dennis Lehane is new this month from Picador.