George V. Higgins

George V. Higgins- Hard boiled crime novelist, lawyer, journalist in his final “author’s photo”.

Trailer for The Friends Of Eddie Coyle.

I’ve been so busy, and it’s so damn hot that it’s been hard to concentrate on doin’ this blog, so here I sit with three half finished posts that I have no idea when or how I’ll get finished. So I thought I’d do a quickie about one of my favorite hard boiled writers– George V. Higgins (born, Nov. 13, 1939- died, Nov. 6, 1999). Higgins, had worked as an assistant district attorney, journalist, lawyer (whose clients included at various times Eldridge Cleaver and G. Gordon Liddy) and later professor at Boston University but will best be remembered for a series of hard boiled novels set in the Boston area and chronicling the Irish low life and organized crime (or disorganized crime in many cases). Higgins books are authentic accounts of the lives of real people, real people that he created. Higgins had such a near perfect ear for the way these mugs talked and thought, and the best of his books are easily among the finest hard boiled writing I have encountered. I haven’t read all twenty seven novels, but I can vouch the dozen or so I’ve read, including his first– The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (1972), which was the template for one of the truly great crime flicks of the 1970’s, and maybe Robert Mitchum’s last truly transcendent performance. In fact, after listening to people rave about Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) which I personally I thought was rather mediocre (the real story of Whitey Bulger was so much more interesting), I started going on rants on how much better The Friends Of Eddie Coyle was, demanding that to anyone who told me they liked The Departed that they see it, for it is truly the masterpiece Boston Irish crime noir. Not only does Mitchum capture the sad life of an over the hill, nickel and dime, Boston hood in great nuance, there’s an exceptional performance from the always great Peter Boyle and a solid cast that includes such under appreciated pros as Richard Jordan, Joe Santos, Alex Rocco, and Steven Keats, all faces you’ll probably recognize even if you don’t know their names.
Higgins’ novel is as good, no, actually it is even better than the film. He followed it up with basically one novel a year until the mid-nineties, including a series of books based around the character of Jerry Kennedy- Kennedy For The Defense (1980), Penance For Jerry Kennedy (1985), Defending Billy Ryan (1992) and Sandra Nicholas Found Dead (1996). Jerry Kennedy, the self described “best sleazy lawyer in town” is a great character, and these books are undoubtedly based on things Higgins saw and heard in his time in practice and in the prosecutor’s office. The Jerry Kennedy books are fast, fun, reading, perfect for a hot summer day when all you can really do is lay around and read, listen to music, and if you’re as brain dead as me watch Law & Order (especially Criminal Intent with Vincent D’Onofrio as Detective Bobby Goran, sort of a Sherlock Homes meets Colombo with a lot of personal baggage and the strangest body language seen on the tube since Redd Foxx’s Fred Sanford, errr… I’m way off the track as usual, is there an emergency exit in this parenthesis?).
Anyway, Higgins, with his amazing ear for conversation, likes let his characters tell the story, which means lots of dialogue, and it also means lots of innuendo and the reader has to do some thinking to put the plot line and action together, this scares off many readers who prefer the blunt Jim Thompson approach to hard boiled. Me, I like the challenge. Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about (at least from the titles I’ve read) is Higgins’ final, posthumously published novel— At The End Of Day (2000), Irish and Italian hoods, and cops, we mostly over hear them, talking in their own lingo, and when it all comes together, it’s like a slap upside the head. Great book. I think it’s my second favorite Higgins novel, after The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. A great pair of bookends to his literary career.
I’ll leave you with one last thought on the subject. At dinner one night, a bunch of friends had decided to take a vote as to what group of people are the ugliest in the world. We narrowed it down to two groups, one is a tribe in Papa New Guinea with a genetic problem that leaves them with permanetly snotty noses, and the other were Southies, the sawed off, pushed in face, south Boston Irish. We took a final vote. The Southies won. George V. Higgins gave those ugly faces a voice, and not just southies, but nearly all of Boston’s underworld comes in for examination in
his nearly two dozen books on the subject.
Higgins didn’t just write hard boiled crime books, he wrote short fiction, non-fiction, books on sports and politics, one on writing (oddly enough, when, after The Friends Of Eddie Coyle was published, a young Nick Tosches wrote him a letter asking him how he came upon his prose style, Higgins’ reply was that he hadn’t the slightest idea how he came on to it), and I think a few others. George V. Higgins died fairly young, at age sixty he dropped dead of a heart attack. The Friends Of Eddie Coyle remains in print, and the film version is available on DVD and still shows up on TCM, but many of his books, including At The End Of The Day, have sadly gone out of print. I think it’s time to bring them back, especially after the orgy of Irish crime non-fiction books that appeared in the wake of the success of Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neil’s Black Mass, the story of Whitey Bulger (still at liberty, if someone hasn’t killed him) and his FBI agent friend John Connelly.
I’ve read about five of these tell-alls, and while none of them are as good as Black Mass, Black Mass, great story that it is, isn’t as good a books as The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (sometimes fiction is a better way to tell the truth than so called “non-fiction”) for the same reason that the film The Departed isn’t as good as the film The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. I put George V. Higgins near the top of my list of crime fiction writers, and if you like to read, you owe it yourself to give him a try. Start with The Friends Of Eddie Coyle and work forward.
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