Once in a generation, a novel is written which not only changes the genre but our appreciation of the whole writing process. Published in 1970, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins is such a novel. It is raw and uncompromising, and it is utterly brilliant. It is the novel you wish you were capable of writing. The Friends of Eddie Coyle didn’t just change the crime fiction genre, it tore up the rule book and re-set the bar on quality so high that it prompted the great Elmore Leonard to say this,
The best crime novel ever written – makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew.
It is a novel from a different era to the one Dashiell Hammett wrote in, so the comparison is probably unfair. That said, if you’ve read The Friends of Eddie Coyle you’ll know why Leonard got so excited, and he wasn’t alone. The quality of the writing forced a change in the genre, and it signalled a clear separation from the hardboiled era to which The Maltese Falcon belonged. The critical reception for what was Higgins’ debut novel was extraordinary. The overwhelming majority of the story is told through dialogue, rather than description. The characters and the plot all come pouring out through conversations that are breathtaking in their stark, unfiltered nature. Bad guys cuss and talk like bad guys, but they do it in such a way that you feel you are in the room with them. The same is true of the good guys. Even they talk like bad guys.
You’ve got to use real mayonnaise, though, the stuff with eggs in it. You can use that other stuff that most people use when they say they’re using mayonnaise, that salad dressing stuff, you can use it. But it doesn’t taste the same.
Quentin Tarantino would be proud of that. It is all so believable, so compelling, so real. Even in a short novel of some 50,000 words, Higgins injects more character than most writers would be capable of in a book of twice the length. That exchange about mayonnaise is between two Federal agents and it completely draws you in. Among the deception, the double-crossing, the bank robberies and the murders, there are conversations about normal things, like girlfriends and cars, but the words aren’t cliches, these aren’t characters from central casting. They are real and enthralling. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a novel about crime and wise guys yet it has none of the glamour of other gangster novels of the time, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969) for example. Higgins doesn’t give you a single character to hang onto as a moral compass, everybody screws everybody else at every available opportunity. Eddie Coyle has no friends.
George V. Higgins was an assistant attorney in Boston when he wrote this novel. His keen, first-hand observation of criminals and gangs comes through in his dialogue. He went on to become a newspaper columnist and eventually a college professor and in time he did pass on some of his writing secrets. In 1990, he published On Writing in which he offers advice to novices. The advice is harsh, and it seeks to prepare you for the bleak reality of trying to make a living as a writer. Higgins believed that anybody that did not seek to get their work published could not be considered a writer.
If the story interests you enough to provoke you into temporarily withdrawing from society long enough to tell it, there is at least a fair possibility that when you are finished, it will interest other people enough to prompt them to forgo companionship long enough to read it. If that proves to be the case, and one of those people is an editor, he or she may actually give you some money in order to make the opportunity available to a whole lot of other people, which is presumably what you had in mind as your ultimate objective when you began spoiling the paper.
Spoiling the paper…now that’s tough love. But then so is The Friends of Eddie Coyle.