By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jun 9, 2010
Jackie Brown, at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.
That’s howThe Friends of Eddie Coyle (also available as a Kindle edition) begins, and in 1970, when this 182-page novel was released, it simply exploded the category. There had never been a book like it --- a crime story with modest action and major dialogue, almost every word to the point.
George V. Higgins, who was then a lawyer for the U.S. Attorney in Boston, would go on to publish more than two dozen books. None exploded a category, none rocked the world. “Eddie Coyle” gave him immortality, bestowed a career-enhancing role for Robert Mitchum in the movie, and influenced a generation of writers.
It’s still fun to read. If, that is, you like your crime hard-boiled, your characters realistic, and no sappy moral lessons along the way.
The part about morality is the key. Once upon a time, crime stories featured good and bad criminals. The good ones were guys who could have had legit careers like you and me, only there was a sick mother or a sister who needed an operation, and crime represented the shortest path to money. And then there were bad guys, who liked to hurt people and had to be put down like dogs at the end.
None of that here. These gun dealers and petty criminals swim in the dreary world of low-end Boston crime. They have small dreams --- winter in Florida --- and modest hopes of achieving them. Their wives are shrews. In their world, survival equals victory. So the entire effort is simply to survive.
But survival is not easy. Not, anyway, for Eddie Coyle. He got arrested in New Hampshire for driving a truck filled with illegal booze, and like an idiot, he pleaded not guilty, pissing the DA off, and he got convicted, which was no surprise, and now he’s facing a few years in jail. Which he does not want to do:
I got three kids and a wife at home, and I can't afford to do no more time, you know? The kids're growing up and they go to school, and the other kids make fun of them and all. Hell, I'm almost forty-five years old.
Eddie, no genius, is aware that the only way to avoid jail is to rat out enough friends to thrill the New Hampshire prosecutors. So he goes to his favorite Massachusetts Federal agent, Dave Foley:
I was thinkin' in terms of you maybe talkin' to the prosecutor up there, and havin' him drop a word to the judge how I been helpin' my Uncle like a bastard?
Well, I would. But then again you haven't been.
What? I gave you a couple of calls.
Yeah, you give me some real stuff, too. You tell me about a guy that's gonna get hit, 15 minutes later he gets hit. You tell me about some guys on a job, but you don't tell me till they’re coming out the door with the money. That's not helping Uncle, Eddie. You gotta put your whole soul into it.
Here it gets complicated, and I’m not going to spoil your pleasure by getting into all that. I do want you to know that this book is not 100% male --- one guy has a girlfriend who’s a stewardess (and because he’s not auditing literature courses at Harvard in his spare time, he gets off telling friends how there’s nothing between her and her jeans). There are some well-executed bank robberies. A few muscle cars.
Mostly, though, there is dialogue that seems more overheard than written --- guys talking to talk, guys talking to deceive. “The only one fuckin' Eddie Coyle is Eddie Coyle,” the Federal agent says. But by the time he gives that little lecture to Eddie, you know better --- even though you’re light years from your own, tame-by-comparison world.