The Friends of Eddie Coyle
by George V. Higgins
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Summary: Lowlife Boston gangter Eddie Coyle is in trouble with the feds and scheming to get out it. The Friends of Eddie Coyle has great dialogue and conveys the seediness of Boston’s meanest streets. Read it.
Review: George V. Higgins (1939-1999) worked as a federal prosecutor in the Boston area and rubbed shoulders with members of the “Irish mafia.” He put those experiences to good use in his stunning debut novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The novel was a huge hit and led to a movie starring Robert Mitchum.
Who is Eddie Coyle?
Eddie “Eddie Fingers” Coyle is a 44-year-old lowlife gangster who deals in guns. He earned the nickname “Fingers” when one of his deals went bad and some of his “friends” disfigured his hand by shutting it in a drawer to teach him a lesson. At the novel opens, Eddie has more-immediate problems – he’s facing prison time after getting caught driving a truck loaded with stolen liquor.
Much of the plot centers on Eddie’s attempts to escape imprisonment. Eddie snitches on his friends in an attempt to secure leniency. A good subplot involves a group of hoodlums who rob banks; Higgins supplies some details on how the hoods pull off these robberies.
What sets Eddie Coyle apart from so many crime novels is Higgins’ ability to write excellent dialogue. He had a terrific ear for capturing nuances in speech. Often, the characters prattle on about trivia – how to make a cheese sandwich, Hare Krishnas, etc. One character – Dillon – delivers a perverse version of “The Serenity Prayer” as it applies to a gangster’s life. In capturing the characters’ language, Higgins reveals them to the reader.
While the characters are often dumb, they seem to realize that they are playing a no-win game. Consider this statement from Eddie –
“I’m getting old. I spent my whole life sitting around in one crummy joint after another with a bunch of punks like you, drinking coffee, eating hash, and watching other people taking off for Florida while I got to sweat how the hell I’m going to pay the plumber next week. I’ve done time and stood up, but I can’t take no more chances.” (p. 65)
Higgins followed Eddie Coyle with two similar books, The Digger’s Game (1973) and Cogan’s Trade (1974). After those books, he experimented with many different types of fiction, but – in my opinion – was “hit and miss” as an author for the rest of his career. (A Choice of Enemies (1984) is a terrific book). Higgins’ reputation rests in large part on The Friends of Eddie Coyle and it is still one of the best crime novels that I have read.