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George V(incent) Higgins (1939-1999)

 

American writer who was noted for his masterful dialogue and knowledge of the criminal underworld. Several of Higgins' works explored the customs and mores of the Boston Irish. He was especially interest in how his characters talk to one another and how the speech characterizes the speaker. Higgins' novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) was selected in 1985 as one of the twenty best American novels since World War II by the British Booksellers Association. Higgins did not like to be regarded as a crime writer, maintaining that he wrote "novels".

"He is a writer against whom other writers compare their talents. Elmore "Dutch" Leonard, David Mamet, John Gregory Dunne, Mordecai Richler, and Ward Just each cite Higgins as influential to their work. The quality of his dialogue is nearly unmatched in twentieth-century literature. He has brought about a renewed interest in New England's customs, history, and people. Yet, since his early novels, Higgins have never attained the broad readership that would have made his oeuvre part of the literary canon." ('George V. Higgins' by Erwin H. Ford II in Mystery and Suspense Writers, ed. by Robin W. Winks, 1 1998)

George Vincent Higgins was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, to Irish-American parents, both schoolteachers and avid readers. He grew up in working-class Rockland. Higgins' upbringing was Catholic, and his Irish-Catholicism influenced deeply his writing. In his boyhood Higgins read among others the works of Ernest Hemingway, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and John O'Hara. At the age of fifteen he wrote his first novel, called 'Operation Cincinnatus,' which he destroyed in the 1970s. Before publishing Eddie Coyle, Higgins finished some ten books that he either discarded or were rejected by publishers.

After graduating from Rockland High School in 1957, Higgins entered Boston College. In 1961-62 he studied at Stanford University, California, receiving his M.A. in 1965. He had went to Stanford "to learn how to write fiction," but found out that "can't be taught, but I didn't know that then." He wrote Chevrolet ads and from 1962 to 1966 he worked as a reporter and journalist for the Providence, Rhode Island Journal and Evening Bulletin and later for the Associated Press in Springfield and Boston. As a reporter, Higgins encountered the New England underworld that was to become his source for his novels. In 1965 he entered Boston College Law School, earning his J.D. in 1967. Higgins was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in the same year. He worked as a legal assistant, a deputy assistant attorney general (1967-69) and assistant attorney general (1969-70) for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts (1970-73) and a special assistant U.S. attorney (1973-74). During these years there was a period of intense rivalry between the Irish and Italian mafian in the city, and Higgins prosecuted a number of underworld murders.

In 1974 Higgins started his career as a criminal attorney in private practice. He defended against criminal charges such clients as the Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy and the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Higgins was a consultant at National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Law, Washington, D.C. (1970-71), instructor in trial practice at Boston College Law School in 1973-74 and 1978-79. He wrote for the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Times of London, the Washington Post, the Boston Herald American, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic Monthly. In 1987 Higgins was appointed professor of creative writing at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He also was a teacher at Boston University. Higgins was maried twice, first to Elizabeth Mulkerin, they divorced in 1979, and second to Loretta Lucas Cubberley.

Part of The Friends of Eddie Coyle first appeared in a literary magazine, North American Review. The awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating selected it in 1987 for his list of the one hundred best crime novels. Critics compared its menacing language to that of Ernest Hemingway in his short story 'The Killers'. Norman Mailer said: "What I can't get over is that so good first novel was written by the fuzz." In his introduction to the Owl Books edition of the book (2000) Elmore Leonard wrote that "in the beginning, both Higgins and I had to put up with labels applied to our work, critics calling us the second coming of Raymond Chandler." The authors met first time at the Harbourfront Reading Series in Toronto, and agreed that neither of them had come out of the Hammett-Chandler school of crime writing.The book was made into a film in 1973. Peter Yates directed it as a series of edgy, convincing conversations. Robert Mitchum was Eddie, the doomed crook, and Peter Boyle his best friend Dillon, who accepts the commission to murder him.

His brilliant ear for dialogue Higgins had developed by listening  wiretapes and reading transcripts. Only Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed the name Jackie Brown from The Friends of Eddie Coyle for his film, could be considered  Higgins' equal in dialogue. In Eddie Coyle the protagonist is a smalltime hoodlum and hustler who tries to avoid giving evidence against his friends. He runs guns to a team of bank robbers while selling information to the cops. Eddie's betrayals ultimately lead to his death. Higgins' literary trademark was already fully developed: the action was mostly transmitted through dialogue. With The Digger's Game (1973) and Cogan's Trade (1974), about a professional killer, Higgins's first novel was part of a loose trilogy about the criminal underworld.

Andrew Dominik's screen version of Cogan's Trade from 2012, entitled Killing Them Softly, moved the events from the 1970s Boston to New Orleans during the 2008 election season. Brad Pitt played Cogan, a hitman, who likes to kill softly, with minimum fuss. "It seems as if I've been seeing versions of this story since forever," said Robert Ebert in his review. "A cast is assembled from various flavors of tough guys, they're placed in a dreary and joyless cityscape, they hold a series of fraught conversations, there is a great deal of suffering and blood, and most of them are required to die by the end." (rogerebert.com, November 29, 2012)

"When I met him on a trip to England in 1986 and greeted him, open-armed, as a fellow crime-writer among a conference full of academics I received a swift rebuff. 'I am a novelist,' he said. Or he might have said 'I'm a novelist, is all.' I contend that what emerged on to the pages in The Friends of Eddie Coyle was in fact a crime novel, and an important one." (H.R.F. Keating in Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987)

Higgins' fourth novel, A City on a Hill (1975), was set in the political world of Washington, D.C., and was based almost exclusively on nonstop dialogue. "This may be the definitive novel of Washington at the staff level," said Christopher Lydon in his review (The New York Times, March 30, 1975). The author's sympathy for the little people and his social conscience marked The Judgment of Deke Hunter (1976), which focused on the moral education of a young state police corporal.

In the 1980s Higgins wrote two novels about Jeremiah Kennedy, a quickwitted and hard-drinking criminal lawyer in Boston, who spends his life defending people he knows are guilty. Kennedy for the Defence (1980) and Penance for Jerry Kennedy (1985) were inspired by his experiences as a criminal defence attorney. Higgins returned to Kennedy in Defending Billy Ryan (1992) and Sandra Nichols Found Dead (1996). Among Higgins' other courtroom novels is Outlaws (1987), about a gang of urban terrorists brought to trial. In Impostors (1986), a study of corruption and hypocrisy, Higgins used his experiences covering Watergate. A Change of Gravity (1997), a novel about friendship, politics, and devotion to duty, continued Higgins' works in the serious literature. The story was written almost entirely through dialogue and unfolded in a nonlinear way.

'Your ex-husband?' she said.
'You deaf or something, mister?' she said, offering the bill back to him. 'I can't take this.'
'You used to be married, that guy?'
She sighed. 'I swear,' she said, 'you got wax in your ears. You oughta go to the doctor. Yeah, I used to be married, thay guy. We got what they call "divorce" in this state. "Providence, and these Plantations." You come from some other planet or something, you never heard of divorce? You should live in Italy...'

(from
Trust, 1989)

Higgins also published non-fiction. The Friends of Richard Nixon (1975) was an inside account of the Watergate trials. In Wonderful Years, Wondereful Years (1988) Higgins examined his Catholic background, On Writing (1990) he gave advice for those who write to publish, and Progress of the Seasons (1989) was about baseball. Higgins died on November 6, 1999. in Milton, Mass. In the same year came out The Agent (1999), a story about a high-profile sports agent. The first part of the book is dominated by the voice of the superagent Alexander Drouhin, whose death is examined by his underlings in the second part. Of oll of Higgins' novels, this work came closest to the traditional whodunit. Higgins' final book was At End of Day (2000), based on a true story about two gangsters, Arthur McKeon and his top henchman, Nick Cistaro, and their relationship with two FBI agents. Higgins published 26 novels and 4 nonfiction works. In spite of Higgins' innovative way of using dialogue and monologue, he did not have followers.

"The difference between British and American crime writing in the handling of speech says a lot about both schools. The British regard dialogue essentially as a medium for conveying information. Occasionally a minor or comic character will be allowed some generalized 'regional' turn of phrase, but everyone of any consequence talks like the cast of an afternoon radio play. By contrast, American crime writers listen to the way the kind of people tay are writing about actually speak and then try – with a greater or lesser degree of stylization – to transcribe it. No one is a greater virtuoso in this respect than George V. Higgins." (Michael Dibdin in The Picador Book of Crime Writing, 1993)

For further reading: The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, compiled by Mike Ashley (2002); Elmore Leonard's introduction to The Friends of Eddie Coyle (2000); Mystery and Suspense Writers, Vol. 1, ed. by Robin W. Winks (1998); Textures of Irish America by Lawrence McCaffrey (1992); American Crime Fiction, ed. by Brian Docherty (1988); Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); The Creative Balance by Elliot Lee Richardson (1976 

Selected works:

  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1972
    - Eddien kaverit (suom. Esko Hamilo, 1973)
    - film: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1973, prod. Paramount Pictures, directed by Peter Yates, screenplay by Paul Monash, starring Robert Mitchum (as Eddie Coyle), Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, Alex Rocco 
  • The Digger's Game, 1973 
  • Cogan's Trade, 1974
    - film: Killing Them Softly, 2012, prod. Plan B Entertainment, 1984 Private Defense Contractors, Annapurna Pictures, directed by Andrew Dominik, starring Brad Pitt (as Jackie Cogan), Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard
  • A City on a Hill, 1975
  • The Friends of Richard Nixon, 1975 (nonfiction)
  • The Judgment of Deke Hunter, 1976
  • Dreamland, 1977
  • A Year or So with Edgar, 1979
  • Kennedy for the Defense, 1980 (Jerry Kennedy novel)
  • The Rat on Fire, 1981
  • The Patriot Game, 1982
  • A Choice of Enemies, 1984
  • Style versus Substance: Boston, Kevin White and the Politics of Illusion, 1984 (nonfiction)
  • Penance for Jerry Kennedy, 1985 (Jerry Kennedy novel)
  • Imposters, 1986
  • Outlaws, 1987
  • The Sins of Their Father, 1988
  • Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years, 1988
  • Trust, 1989
  • The Progress of the Seasons: Forty Years of Baseball in Our Town, 1989 (nonfiction)
  • Victories, 1990
  • On Writing: Advice for Those Who Write to Publish, 1990 (nonfiction)
  • The Mandeville Talent, 1991
  • Defending Billy Ryan, 1992 (Jerry Kennedy novel)
  • Bomber's Law, 1993
  • Swan Boats at Four, 1995
  • Sandra Nichols Found Dead, 1996 (Jerry Kennedy novel)
  • A Change of Gravity, 1997
  • The Agent, 1999
  • At the End of Day, 2000
  • The Easiest Thing in the World: The Uncollected Fiction of George V. Higgins, 2004


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