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the friends of eddie coyle

7 february 2017

One of the mondegreens of my high-school years was a popular book, later a movie. When my South Jersey classmates talked about it, I heard it as The Frenzevetti Coil. Ah well. That would have made an excellent title for a Robert Ludlum thriller.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a minor American classic, a tour de force of hard-boiled dialogue. The plot is set up like a house of cards, engineered to fall on top of our title character in the end. Eddie Coyle – usually referred to in the chapters where he appears just as "the stocky man" – is a small-time criminal in Massachusetts, piecing together some supplementary income by buying and reselling stolen firearms. The threat of long prison terms looms over Eddie and all his "friends" in his supply chain. They're highly motivated to sell each other out for some prosecutorial leniency.

The 1970 New England of George V. Higgins' imagination is violent and lawless, despite the presence of cops and snitches everywhere. Armed robberies burgeon at Bonnie & Clyde rates; home invasions are routine. Mafiosi, Black Panthers, and hippie anarchists vie for the prize of bringing down civil society. Everybody's armed to the teeth, and the nicest guys in Eddie Coyle's circle go in for things like breaking your fingers in a slammed desk drawer instead of out-and-out shooting you to death.

Our hero, such as he is, is Foley, a federal officer who starts the novel as an undercover investigator of drug crimes, trying to work his way up to the more glamorous reaches of weapons violations and bank robberies. Foley makes contact with Coyle and other wise guys up and down the food chain. Interpreting their self-serving claims is something of a hermeneutic art. Everybody's leaving out some crucial bit of information, meaning that when good or bad things happen it's rarely for a straightforward reason. Not only do metaphorical postmen ring twice in Higgins' world, but the doorbell keeps on ringing and ringing all day without much cause.

I tend to think I've read or seen everything that can be said in the hard-boiled genre, but until I finally picked up The Friends of Eddie Coyle, I hadn't seen anything. In some ways it still marks a ne plus ultra in American crime writing. Written at a juncture when the toppling of censorship was still quite recent, Higgins' novel appropriated huge expanses of linguistic ground for tough-guy dialogue, becoming greatly influential in turn on prose and also on spoken dialogue from Scorsese to The Sopranos.

But even the flintiest of dialogue wouldn't work without a good story, and Higgins really puts together an excellent crime yarn here. There's intrigue, suspense, misdirection, and irony. Put it all together, and it makes for a page-turner with superior literary qualities, in a class with Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain.

Higgins, George V. The Friends of Eddie Coyle. 1970. New York: Picador [Henry Holt], 2010. PS 3558 .I356F7

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