The 40th Anniversary Edition of George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle opens with an introduction by Dennis Lehane, who’s one of the greatest noir novelists writing today. To have Lehane praise the novel is no small thing; to have him cite it as an inspiration for the great Elmore Leonard sets the stage even more; but to have Lehane say, as he does here, that it’s “quite possibly one of the four or five best crime novels ever written” sets expectations pretty astonishingly high for a newcomer to Higgins’ iconic book. (Oh, and it turns out, the aforementioned Elmore Leonard? He thought it was the best crime novel ever written. No small thing, that.) Could the book live up to that introduction? Heck, could any book live up to that?
Somehow, The Friends of Eddie Coyle does, largely by defying every expectation of what you think it’s going to be. Yes, it’s a crime novel, but it’s one in which we see very little crime actually happen, and even what we get is often limited by our perspective. Yes, it plunges you into a Boston underworld of mobsters, made men, stool pigeons, and gun runners, but rather than giving us the drama of The Godfather or even the lived-in grime of The Sopranos, this colorful collection of hoods and rogues are ridiculously inept at times – self-involved, fearful, self-preserving, and ultimately less threatening than they are dangerous to each other.
But more than anything else, what you don’t expect about The Friends of Eddie Coyle is how much of the novel consists of nothing more than characters talking. There’s little action in the novel, little narration; instead, Higgins lets his characters just talk to – and at – each other in rambling monologues, digressions, casual slang, and a constant stream of bluffs, brags, and confessions. It’s a novel almost entirely constructed out of these conversations, with what plot there is largely unfolding in the background – and what’s more, often behind the layers of deception coming out of the mouths of our characters, who are interested in nothing so much as they are preserving their own lives and looking tough in the progress.
The result is a bit hard to describe casually, because this isn’t the crime novel you expect. Yes, there’s a story unfolding here – about bank robbers, a criminal desperate not to go to jail, a gun-runner, and some very paranoid mafia men – but that’s hardly the point, nor is it the joy of the book. No, what makes The Friends of Eddie Coyle so great is living next to these characters and listening to their patter, all of which tells you more about them in seconds than any amount of narration ever could. If I tell you that a character says the following, don’t you instantly know everything about their personality and worldview, without me saying another word?
I’m getting older. 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 take off for Florida while I got to sweat how the hell I’m going to pay the plumber next week.
Or what about this incredible monologue?
“I heard a guy on television the other night,” Dillon said. “He was talking about pigeons. Called them flying rats. I thought that was pretty good. He had something in mind, going to feed them the Pill or something, make them extinct. Trouble is, he was serious, you know? There was a guy that got shit on and probably got shit on again and then he got mad. Ruined his suit or something, going to spend the rest of his life getting even with the pigeons because they wrecked a hundred-dollar suit. Now there isn’t any percentage in that. There must be ten million pigeons in Boston alone, laying eggs every day, which will generally produce more pigeons, and all of them dropping tons of shit, rain or shine. And this guy in New York is going to, well, there just aren’t going to be any of them in this world any more.”
No, The Friends of Eddie Coyle isn’t what you expect, and that can be a bit distracting at first. But it’s pretty amazing in its color, its life, its wry humor, and its incredible voice, and there’s no denying how simply rich, entertaining, and engrossing it is. That this book somehow lives up to that introduction? That’s no small thing.