The System in the Works of George V. Higgins
My Christmas reading included George V. Higgins’ wonderful debut novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972). I’m not sure if I would include Higgins as one of my favourite crime writers, but he is definitely one of the most innovative and challenging crime writers of the twentieth century, so much so that his work can be difficult to read. The plot, or what there is of it, centres around aging small-time criminal Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle. Coyle wants to leave ‘the life’ but is roped into a deal by the young gun-runner Jackie Brown. Meanwhile, the police are putting pressure on Coyle to rat out his friends, a.k.a criminal associates, in order to guarantee his freedom, a proposition that weighs heavily with Coyle’s longstanding old-school criminal code.
The novel is technically written in a cold and impartial third-person narrative, as evidenced in the famous opening line, ‘Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns’, but a huge amount of the text is comprised of dialogue, and Higgins is a master at recreating the working class Irish and Italian dialects of Boston, Massachusetts, the novel’s setting. The criminal characters tend to be loquacious, and as a consequence they talk a lot of BS. The challenge to the reader is where in the novel we can discern dialogue which is driving the plot as opposed to places where the characters are giving verbose distractions. But what is most challenging about Higgins’ work is how the novels conclude with only a partial sense of resolution. The ramifications of the crimes will go on and on and characters will continually pass through the complex and unwieldy legal system, as one prosecutor says towards the end of the novel:
Some of us die, the rest of us get older, new guys come along, old guys disappear. It changes every day.
It might be tempting to view this cynical depiction of police work and the legal system as deeply depressing, but Higgins is not portraying a system of institutionalised brutality, ingrained corruption and punitive unworkable laws as found in the work of Eddie Bunker. Higgins was a lawyer and a college professor. He knew the intricacies of the legal system and despite laying bare its cumbersome and flawed features, there is still a sense of reserved conservative optimism in his work. The wheels of justice keep turning, somewhat ineffectively but never to the extent that it will ever stop working, and to a certain degree this mirrors the human relationships of Higgins’ characters. As David Mamet, another American writer who is a master at telling stories almost entirely through dialogue, argues in his rather controversial, very playful essay, Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’.
I’d observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle was adapted into a classic crime film directed by Peter Yates and with Robert Mitchum in the title role. George V. Higgins died of a heart attack in 1999, one week before his sixtieth birthday. The George V. Higgins archive is housed at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina.