Ah, let’s see, now. What are those rules for writing we’re all supposed to memorize and live by? Always have a strong narrative to go with your dialogue? Isn’t that one of them? And how about the one that says we’re not supposed to overdo the dialogue? And of course, absolutely no point of view shifts. Oh, and let’s not forget the draconian Cut down the dialogue tags as much as possible!
There are probably some people out there who think George V Higgins should’ve heeded this advice. But then, if he had, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle wouldn’t have become one of the greatest crime/noir novels ever written.
In this 1970 Boston-set masterpiece, Higgins unfolds virtually the entire story through dialogue. Cops, thieves, snitches, hit men, gun runners…they’re all just regular guys in Higgins’ eyes, just doing their jobs. A major part of their tedious lives requires that they sit around talking to each other in grimy bars and coffee shops and parking lots, each one of these guys with his own agenda, each looking to one up the other.
And each one is aware of the stakes.
Eddie Coyle is a lifelong small-time crook. He’s got a sentencing date coming up for being caught with a truckload of stolen whiskey and is looking at two years inside. His lawyer tells him he’ll be out in eight months.
Problem is, Eddie doesn’t want to do the time. He’s a world-weary 44, a veteran of prison time, and he feels the clock ticking. He wants to be with his family and is determined to avoid going back inside. So he makes a deal.
Dave Foley is a cop looking to make busts any way he can. When Eddie comes to him looking to give up some info on a sale of machine guns in return for a phone call to the judge and perhaps a suspension of his sentence, he agrees.
What Foley eventually suspects is that Eddie is buying guns from the same person. Could Eddie be supplying these weapons to a crafty crew of bank robbers who have been terrorizing the Boston area?
The plot is in fact a mixture of noir desperation and basic cops-and-robbers, but what sets this apart from all other crime novels of the 20th century is Higgins’ stunning use of authentic dialogue. It takes up approximately 80% of the entire book, which would pretty much do away with the “must have lots of narrative” rule. By the way–rule Nazis take note–he uses dialogue tags after nearly every single line of dialogue. Not only that, the tags are always “he said” or “Eddie said” or whoever said. Oh, the humanity!
But you know what? It’s riveting writing. I dare you to take your eyes off the page.
Higgins’ Boston underworld is very much a blue-collar kind of place, totally devoid of any Godfather-like opera. Boston itself is December-cold and dreary, lacking any romance whatsoever. You can almost feel Eddie Coyle and his “friends”, lunch pails in hand, lining up to punch a clock before starting their work day. They’re all kindred spirits, to be sure, but their loyalties are thin. And there’s no telling who’s ratting out whom.
This edition, published by Picador, contains a top-flight introduction by Dennis Lehane who rightly points out that many other authors were profoundly influenced by The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. Even Higgins himself tried (too hard, Lehane says) to duplicate its success and failed.
If you have not yet read this outstanding work, go buy it now.
Oh, and as for those writing rules? W Somerset Maugham said it best.
There are only three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.