George V. Higgins: An appreciation

So-called literary crime fiction has produced as many innovations in style and content as straight-up literature in the postmodern era.

Brad Pitt in “Killing Them Softly” (© 2011 - The Weinstein Co.)

For every J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, the crimers can counter with the dark, amputated Los Angeles canon of James Ellroy, with its telegraphic sentences whittled to the white of a finger bone, or the note-perfect, cool breeze dialogue of the late Elmore Leonard.

But I’ll tell you what: I’ll put three books by the late George V. Higgins up against any three books written by anybody since Hemingway or Faulkner — maybe everybody from Mailer on.

These three landmarks of literary crime fiction — The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Digger’s Game, and Cogan’s Trade — are breathtaking in what they accomplish in so many realms. (The last has been renamed Killing Them Softly to tie in with the 2012 film, which featured a stunning turn by Brad Pitt as Boston mob enforcer Jackie Cogan. Robert Mitchum should have gotten an Oscar for Eddie Coyle, too, if you remember that movie.)

First, let’s talk dialogue. Dutch Leonard himself gave the nod to Higgins as his master and mentor. Basically, we talk sloppy and shitty in real life, all “ums” and “buts” and “likes” and backtracking and jumping and trailing off and shortcutting but still somehow getting things sort of across.

Languages within languages

Hard guys in Boston, which are Higgins’s stock-in-trade, have languages within languages, of misdirection and what can be at times a kind of verbose silence. They talk like there might be a wire in the ashtray. And yet Higgins has them say so much so well in that tough Irish street patois that he learned firsthand as an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston. The sucker listened, and what he did with what he heard is truly fascinating. You want to know how a hood thinks and talks and what his world is really about, check out Jackie Cogan bracing a stick-up man to give up his partner: “Now whyn’t you relax a little, Frankie, okay?” Cogan said. “You know how it is when a guy, when China wants a guy to do something, you got to do it, is all, China’s down there, locked up and everything, he’s got to depend on his friends, do the right thing for the guys he’s worried about. I’d be embarrassed in front of China, I hadda tell him, he ever found out, a guy he wanted me to talk to, I didn’t talk to him. You know how China is.”

The guy gives up his partner, and Jackie ends up shooting them both. He kills by surprise — “killing them softly,” he says — because he thinks it’s unseemly when hits beg for their lives. Standards are important in criminal Boston — unless they get in the way.

Ah, criminal Boston. What fertile loam. Yeggs like mushrooms. I can’t wait to see Johnny Depp as arch Boston criminal Whitey Bulger in Black Mass in September. The Departed was a jam-up movie take on Whitey — sort of — too, and Ben Affleck’s movies of The Town and Gone Baby Gone were first-rate Boston crime films, the latter taken from a book by the estimable Dennis Lehane, the current top dog of Boston crime lit.

Both Lehane and George V. Higgins have the eye and the background to make their city a kind of character in their fiction. The difference is in their worldview as writers. Lehane’s is Technicolor, with an indie rock band in the background, and characters who might burst their seams at any time; the villains do it regularly in hi def. Higgins is grainy black-and-white; you can smell the beer and piss in the Southie gin mills and hear the silence in Charlestown when a cop cruiser slows down. There are no heroes in these books, just working stiffs whose main job is crime, even if they have day jobs as cover. “The life,” as it is known, has always been there for them; it’s the social weather that brewed them up, and it is hard and unforgiving and the better they understand that, the longer they might last.

Until Jackie Cogan gets there. And talks to them.

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