"For the past 30 years the greatest novelists writing in English have been genre writers: John le Carré, George Higgins and Patrick O'Brian." - David Mamet, NY Times, January 17, 2000
"The best crime novel ever written . . . I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free. So this is how you do it." - Elmore Leonard on The Friends of Eddie Coyle
"You hold in your hands the game-changing crime novel of the last fifty years . . . How can a slim book with minimal description and no heroes lay claim to the status of a modern masterpiece?" - Dennis Lehane; introduction to the 2010 edition of The Friends of Eddie Coyle
". . . an obvious precursor of The Wire and everything that is most interesting in Quentin Tarantino movies" - The Cincinnati Review
"This life's hard, but it's harder if you're stupid" - George V HigginsDuring much of the 1980s and 90s the only fiction writers whose new novels THC would buy without reading a review were George V Higgins and Patrick O'Brian (for more on O'Brian, author of the Aubrey-Maturin series, the best historical novels ever written, see Master And Commander). Then, they were both suddenly gone within eight weeks; O'Brian on January 2, 2000 at the age of 85 preceded by Higgins on November 6, 1999 from a heart attack at 59.
George V Higgins was a double Eagle (Boston College and Boston College Law School), a big deal back then in Boston. Born in Brockton, Massachusetts he grew up and later lived on Boston's South Shore (aka The Irish Riviera). Before becoming a novelist he worked as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the State of Massachusetts, an Assistant US Attorney, and as a journalist.
Success as a writer did not come overnight. Before The Friends of Eddie Coyle was published in 1972, he'd started more than a dozen novels. Reflecting on this experience, he counseled aspiring authors in his instruction manual, On Writing (1990):
The secret remains that there is no secret. The way to determine whether you have talent is to rummage through your files and see if you have written anything; if you have, and quite a lot, then the chances are you have the talent to write more. If you haven't written anything, you do not have the talent because you don't want to write. Those who do can't help themselves.
If you do not seek to publish what you have written, then you are not a writer and you never will be.And in typical Higgins style he also adds:
If your reading hasn't made you a better person, and it hasn't, why the hell should your writing make your reader better?Eddie Coyle was an overnight sensation; one that Higgins would never top in terms of sales or critical acclaim though he maintained respectable sales and good reviews until the end. And he was prolific, producing 27 novels and 4 non-fiction books in just under three decades. As a devoted fan, THC knew he could depend upon GVH to provide a steady stream of good reading.
Many of the grimy Boston locations and much of Higgins' dialogue were kept in the fine movie version of Eddie Coyle, made by Bullitt director Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum as the small-time hood just trying to make a living. This is the opening scene of the movie in which Coyle (Mitchum) meets with a dealer in untraceable guns. The dialogue closely tracks the novel and Mitchum gets it perfect (except for the Boston accent).
The novel introduced what Higgins became best known for; his distinctive dialogue or as Higgins once put it "The quotes make the story. Dialogue is character and character is plot." Most of his novels consist of heavy doses of dialogue and sometimes dialogues within the dialogues and digressions within the dialogues threaded among other dialogues. If you don't keep careful track you can find your head spinning. It's what Mamet, Lehane and Leonard treasured about Higgins. Some others weren't so enamored; critic Rod MacLeish once commenting "The plot of a Higgins novel . . . is a blurrily perceived skeleton within the monsoon of dialogue". But that's precisely what we loved about the books. These are not Robert Ludlum novels packed with plot and action. We really didn't care about the plot other than the general set up; it was the characters and their meandering talk that engaged us. As novelist Evan Hunter wrote: "The people are so real that it doesn't matter what they're doing or how they go about doing it; just being in their company is pleasure enough".
The dialogue Higgins wrote was realistic but it wasn't real. Very few people actually talk like that, or at least they don't talk like that for so long and, at times, he could venture dangerously near Damon Runyon territory. But mostly, Higgins had a knack for cadence, ambiance and simplicity that rang true even if it wasn't actually true. This is Cadillac Teddy Franklin in Defending Billy Ryan (1992):
"It's all business, you know?" Teddy said. "That's all it is, a business. You do a thing, you do a thing, you do another thing. You say a guy: 'Hey, I need this,' and he says: 'Hey, okay'. And then he goes and does it. So, you use him once, and he comes through, you call him up again. You say: 'Now, I need this other thing'. So he goes: 'When?' You say: 'Tamarra.' He says: 'I can't do it then. Gimme Thursday. I'll be there.' You say: 'Thursday. You got it.' Thursday he is there. And he has got the thing."This passage always reminds me of the scene from the remake of Ocean's Eleven when Elliot Gould's character tells George Clooney and Brad Pitt "I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place and I'll never forget it. Give Dominc your addresses, I've got some remaindered furniture I wanna send to you." (watch it here).
Don't go looking for action sequences in these books; there are few. A Higgins novel relies on dialogue in which the characters converse about what had happened, or was about to happen, or about things that had nothing to do with what had or was going to happen, though sometimes it would dawn on you towards the end of the book that that thing, you know which the guy talked about way back that didn't seem to have anything to do with the story, did.
A recent piece by Jim Sherman in the Houston Chronicle captures how Higgins struck a new reader:
No American novelist has ever mastered dialogue the way Higgins did. If anything, he may have had too fine an ear for the mainstream. I read Eddie Coyle when I was a Midwestern high school student, and I just didn’t get it. Then I spent 10 weeks in boot camp in the company of 20 or teenage boys from Southie and when I revisited the novel it made much more sense: Oh, that’s why he put that comma there! That’s why he murdered the verb tense deader than a stool pigeon! That’s the way those people talk!Messing with the verb tense was a Higgins trademark that makes for thrilling reading but requires careful attention lest you lose your bearings.
Elmore Leonard paid further tribute to Higgins after his death:
"What I learned from George Higgins, was to relax, not be so rigid in trying to make the prose sound like writing, to be more aware of the rhythms of coarse speech and the use of obscenities [and there were times when he used a lot of obscenities]. Most of all … hook the reader right away."Leonard didn't just admire Higgins, he became the bridge between GVH and Quentin Tarantino. The opening line of Eddie Coyle is "Jackie Brown, at 26, with no expression on his face, said he could get some guns.” Twenty years later Leonard wrote Rum Punch, whose lead character was named Jackie Burke in tribute to Higgins, and several years later Tarantino made a movie based on Rum Punch and titled it Jackie Brown.
Coyle also introduced us to the trademark George V Higgins deadpan view of life's realities:
"You know how it is, you're talking to somebody and he says something and the next fellow says something, and the first thing you know, you heard something"Higgins further developed his mordant sense of humor and cynicism in his later novels. From The Judgment Of Deke Hunter (1979), about a state cop facing career and moral choices:
"That's the thing that bothers you, you know? It is just, well, there's some things you can help and some kinds of things you can't do anything about, is all. Knowing the difference, as long as you can tell the difference, you're in pretty good shape. That was what kind of bothered me about that big broad with the bullhorn there, was that just for a minute or so it was like I didn't know the difference. You get so you're in that position, you're not going to be able to do very much about anything."
"The way it is, I'm still scared all the time, scared I'll be wiped out."Or take this little bit from Trust (1989):
"Is that likely?" Hunter said.
"I hope not," Edmund said. "Not that hopes matter"
"Whatever doesn't kill us, makes us strong," Cobb said.In the course of the 1980s Higgins went through a period when his cynicism grew overwhelming. THC recommends against a Higgins novice attempting Penance for Jerry Kennedy (1985), the second of the four Jerry Kennedy books (of which more below), because its acidic cynicism and fatalism burns through the pages. Only take it on once you've become acclimated by reading some of his other novels.
"Fuck Nietzsche," Beale said: "He's never around when you need him."
And then there is Bomber's Law (1993), Higgins' Finnegan's Wake, which should definitely not be attempted by amateurs. Nominally, Bomber's Law is about Detective Sergeant Brennan of the Massachusetts State Police, who is following a mob enforcer, Short Joey Mossi, in an attempt to build a case against him. After tailing Mossi fruitlessly for years, Brennan is saddled by his boss, Brian Dennison, with a new partner, Harry Dell'Appa, an idealistic and impatient young state cop, who is puzzled why Brennan and Dennison's predecessor, the retired and now very dead Bomber Lawrence, have failed to get the goods on Short Joey after all these years. Most of the novel, which is 95% dialogue, consists of Brennan, Dell'Appa and Dennison telling each other lengthy, and occasionally deliberately distracting, yarns in the course of which we learn a lot about Short Joey and his younger, mentally disabled brother, and eventually the secret of Bomber's Law along with embarking upon many entertaining excursions which have nothing to do with the plot, that is, if there is, in fact, a plot. The story telling is wonderful but dazzlingly complex often requiring the reader to double back and make sure they understand just whom the speaker is referring to or who is actually speaking. The entire novel is a digression - a great ride but you need to develop your Higgins' muscles before attempting.
Higgins' world was that of the low-life criminals or near criminals and those who track and prosecute them, along with the state and local politicians who also qualified as low-lifes in the Higgins worldview. He didn't often feature women as lead characters, but one of his best is recently divorced Connie Gates in Imposters (1986), who gets entangled investigating a murder case on behalf of a Boston newspaper publisher and manages to get the best of everyone she deals with. More problematic was when he strayed from his usual cast. Higgins was a great admirer of John O'Hara and tried to emulate him with Dreamland (1977) and Swan Boats At Four (1995) both of which dealt with upper-middle class angst but ended up just being boring.
One of THC's favorites is A Choice Of Enemies (1984) the closest thing to a "big novel" that Higgins ever wrote. In an interview Higgins said he had wanted to write the story for twenty years, based upon his journalism work in the early 1960s, but had waited until he had the maturity to do it justice. Enemies concerns the travails of Bernie Morgan, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who is desperately maneuvering to preserve his political power and avoid jail in the face of an onslaught by his political enemies, including Governor John J Tierney and various law enforcement officials. Morgan is based upon John Forbes Thompson, the corrupt Speaker in the early 1960s, and Tierney on Governor Endicott "Chub" Peabody of whom it was said he was the only governor to have three Massachusetts towns named after him; Peabody, Marblehead and Athol. Speaker Morgan has two wives, both named Maggie, and his biggest resource is the fixer, the wonderfully written Francis X Costello. It's a delightful and realistic plunge into Massachusetts politics, which haven't changed much in the intervening years which have seen several other Speakers go directly to jail.
When he desired, Higgins could deploy a considerable gift for precise description. Here's a passage from The Rat on Fire (1981), so titled in honor of an actual case of insurance fraud hatched by a building owner and fire marshal to torch tenements by setting fire to rats:
At 2:35 in the morning, Leo Proctor took a right on Dorchester Avenue and drove the van south for about half a mile. He took a right and then another right, driving very carefully between the cars parked on both sides of the street, and found a place in front of his yellow three-decker, the one with the white trim, at 41 Windsor Street. He did not hit anything when he parked the van, although he did stumble on the curb after he had locked it. He moved slowly up the front walk, swaying very slightly, unlocked the door on the left side of the front porch with only moonlight to assist him, replaced the keys in his left pants pocket carefully, opened the door, felt for the light, turned it on, entered, closed and snap-locked the door behind him and pushed the bolt shut above the snap lock.(Higgins in 1980 from writersbone.com)
Jerry Kennedy was Higgins' favorite recurring character, a man his own wife describes as the "classiest sleazy criminal lawyer in Boston". Kennedy For The Defense (1980) introduces Jerry and Jerry, in turn, quickly introduces one of his best, because he often needs his services, clients, the aforementioned Cadillac Teddy Franklin.
I have a client named Teddy Franklin. Teddy Franklin is a car thief. He is thirty-two years old, and he is one of the best car thieves on the Eastern Seaboard. Cadillac Ted is so good that he is able to support himself as a car thief. He has been arrested repeatedly, which is how he made my acquaintance, but he has never done time. That is because I am so good. It is also because Teddy is so good.The second novel, Penance For Jerry Kennedy is good, but thoroughly gloomy as mentioned previously. Counselor Kennedy begins his personal and professional recovery in Defending Billy Ryan, representing the incredibly corrupt, long-time Commissioner of Public Works who, though guilty as sin, is acquitted possibly, or possibly not, because of Jerry's efforts. It's the least dialogue heavy of the books and, for that reason, a good starting point for the beginner. The finale of the series, Sandra Nichols Found Dead (1995) finds Kennedy bringing a wrongful death action on behalf of the children of the long-missing, recently found, and definitely deceased Ms Nichols and, in the process, possibly stumbling into a modicum of happiness in his life. And note to my family - if THC should ever disappear please hire Jerry Kennedy's investigator, Royce Whitlock, recently retired from the Massachusetts State Police, to search for me despite the fact that he's a cheapskate who thinks a Coke and a can of spam constitutes a proper lunch.
The Kennedy novels also bring to the fore Higgins' extensive experience as a lawyer, which includes, in addition to his years as a prosecutor, about a decade in the 1970s and early 80s as a defense lawyer representing, among others, Eldridge Cleaver and G Gordon Liddy. His jaundiced view of the legal system is best expressed in Defending Billy Ryan:
If there is one thing a defense lawyer knows, it's that the government can get you if it wants to. Any government. Federal, state or local. Law-abiding private citizens do not believe this until some government sets out to get them, and they have to pay good money to a man like me to fight for them, but their disbelief is like unto the very dew of May; it evaporates fast. Along with their bank balances, cheerfulness, and the order of their lives.To which THC can only add, based on his personal experience, amen.
Which brings to mind another wonderful lawyer moment from The Judgment Of Deke Hunter when, towards the end of the book, Deke, State Prosecutor Shanley and three defense lawyers adjourn to a bar to await a verdict and engage in a protracted, and very funny, bout of drinking and verbal sparring demonstrating what lawyers really think and say to each other when not in the courtroom.
Perhaps it is fitting that the last Higgins novel, published in 2000 after his death, was based on the notorious exploits of James "Whitey" Bulger and Steve "The Rifleman" Flemmi, the degenerate mobsters and murderers who ruled the Boston crime world in the 1980s while at the same time making the Boston FBI office their accomplice in mayhem (for more, see I'm Shipping Up To Boston). At End Of Day chronicles the unraveling of Arthur McKeach and Nick Cistaro. As he frequently did, Higgins uses real events and people for inspiration but imprints his own unique take on the tale.
Higgins resented being pigeonholed as a genre "crime novelist", trying several times without success to reach a broader audience, and indeed, while most of his novels involved criminals, they were certainly not whodunits; they were simply novels in which the characters had criminal tendencies. In an obituary John Williams of The Guardian provides an insight into his frustration:
In America, sadly, he was relegated to the ghetto of the crime round-up, where critics would routinely praise his dialogue and move on to the next serial killer epic. As a result, he had a particular fondness for Britain, where he had always been taken seriously.If Williams had dinner with Higgins it was likely at Locke-Ober, the legendary Boston hangout often frequented by the novelist. With its dark paneled dining areas, heavy decor and filled with the politicos, bankers, lawyers and businessmen who ran the city it was the perfect setting for encountering George V Higgins. Like Higgins, it too passed away, closing in 2012 after one hundred and thirty seven years.
In person Higgins was every inch the smart, cynical trial lawyer with a fondness for red wine and political gossip. When I met him in the late 1980s he revealed himself to be a warm, funny man, but one with a pervasive sense of injustice and disappointment at the lack of serious attention his work was receiving.
(Locke-Ober from Wikipedia)
(Higgins at Locke-Ober from bc.edu)
Oddly enough for a writer so embedded and associated with Boston, Higgins papers were donated by his widow to the University of South Carolina, where he had taught on occasion, and you can read about the George V Higgins Collection here.
Do yourself a favor, pick up a Higgins novel and immerse yourself in his world. He has got the thing.