Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Bestseller List Revisited -- 1972: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

2010 edition
The Committee Room looks back forty years to the spring of 1972 when The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a slim novel by young Boston lawyer George V. Higgins, found its way onto the New York Times Bestseller List.  Topping the list that spring were The Winds of War by Herman Wouk and Wheels by Arthur Hailey, both mammoth tomes written by aging titans.

George V. Higgins, a Boston College and Stanford University educated writer turned lawyer turned back to writer, wrote several unpublished novels before getting The Friends of Eddie Coyle accepted at Alfred A. Knopf. Part of the novel's sixth chapter had appeared in a different form under the title "Dillon Explained That He Was Frightened" in the North American Review (Fall 1970).

In his introduction to its 2010 Picador edition, Boston novelist Dennis Lehane calls Eddie Coyle "the game-changing crime novel of the last fifty years.  It is also quite possibly one of the four or five best crime novels ever written.  It casts such a long shadow that all of us who toil in the genre known as American noir do so in its shade."

Elmore Leonard goes even further. In his introduction to Eddie Coyle's 2000 edition, he declares it "the best crime novel ever written – makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew."

Higgins went on to write thirty books of fiction and non-fiction, including the popular Eddie Coyle follow ups The Digger's Game and Cogan's Trade; a volume of advice to writers, On Writing; and a look at forty years of Boston Red Sox baseball, Progress of the Seasons, but his reputation rests with his debut novel.

George V. Higgins
Eddie Coyle is a middle-aged small time New England hood facing jail time for driving a truck of stolen goods.  He turns informant in the hope of getting his sentence reduced but things don't go as planned.  Coyle fails to realize that absolutely nobody in his sordid world, including the police, can be trusted. His "friends" are no less willing to sell out him as he is to sell out them.    

The most remarkable feature of The Friends of Eddie Coyle is not the story itself but how Higgins tells it.  This brief novel is made up almost entirely of dialogue. Readers are given only what information the characters offer up in their ungrammatical and relentlessly profane conversations.  There is no narration filling in details of setting or biography. About Eddie Coyle we learn few specifics other than he is forty-something, stockily built, and unhappily married.        

"Eddie Coyle fluidly combines elements of a procedural and a thriller, of suspense and social realism," writes Troy Patterson in Slate. "What it isn't is a Chandler-type mystery novel about a sleuth battling his own cynicism. Here, the sleuthing remains in the background, like a surveillance van, and the cynicism is a precondition of existence. Further, most hard-boiled classics allow their villains only so much time to talk, while this one gets its ripe flavor from their dialogue—tough talk, dumb bluffs, weaseling hedges, empty promises, pungent shoptalk, and by-the-by marital complaints."

U.K. first edition
It is inaccurate to categorize The Friends of Eddie Coyle as a tale of the so-called Boston "Irish Mafia."  Its characters show no indication of being particularly connected to their ethnicity and much of the action takes place not in Boston but in outlying Massachusetts towns that create an anonymous backdrop.  Higgins himself grew up in Rockland, Massachusetts, about twenty miles south of Boston, and worked as a reporter in Providence, Rhode Island before becoming a lawyer and assistant United States Attorney.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle peaked at number five on the New York Times Bestseller List in May of 1972.  By summer it left the Times list entirely to make room for, among other titles, another slim yet very different book by an unknown young author, Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

A film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released in 1973 starring a weary-looking Robert Mitchum as an Eddie Coyle who seems older, mellower, more intelligent and more sympathetic than the Eddie Coyle in Higgins' book.  In 2011, Bill Doncaster's stage adaptation of The Friends of Eddie Coyle was staged in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Stickball Productions.

George V. Higgins died of a heart attack in 1999, shortly before his sixtieth birthday.  His final book, At End of Day, appeared posthumously in 2000.  A collection of Higgins' previously unpublished short stories, The Easiest Thing in the World, with an introduction by Robert B. Parker, was released in 2005.

Further information --

"George V. Higgins: An Appreciation of Boston's Balzac." Brian Greene. Mulholland Books, September 13, 2011.

The Fans of Eddie Coyle." Hallie Ephron., May 30, 2010.


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