11 June 2013

Putting a Face to the Name

Last year a friend lent me his well-worn copy of The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins.  My friend was aghast that I'd never read a book he considered seminal in the crime fiction field.  I enjoyed the novel.  It was easy to see that it would have been a standout when it was first published in 1971, since so much of it is told in dialogue and that dialogue is almost straight goodfellaese (almost twenty years before Goodfellas).  The novel appeared just after the publication of Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969), but in tone it's almost the anti-Godfather.  The characters (Irish rather than Italian) are lower middle class and most of their crimes are two-bit.  Higgins' refusal to romanticize organized crime makes the book ring true.  That and the dialogue.

But it seems to me that Higgins' reliance on dialogue is both a strength and weakness of the novel.  It gives the book an immediacy that's almost like listening in on a wiretap, but it also makes it hard to root for or identify with any character in the book, including the title character, Eddie Coyle.  That mutes the ending a bit--or it did for me.  You can argue that a story without a hero was exactly what Higgins was after, but that isn't the issue I want to talk about today.  I want to stick with dialogue, with its advantages and limitations for presenting character.

When I write, I depend a lot on dialogue to help me get to know my characters.  That is, I get to know them by listening to them speak.  This is especially true of minor characters, the ones who weren't given much attention in my outline.  I seldom write much physical description of characters or very detailed "stage directions" in an early draft of a scene.  I come to see the character and how the character moves or fidgets or doesn't by listening to his or her voice.  Then I go back and add the non-dialogue elements.  In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, these elements are either missing or pared to the bone.  And because so many of the characters are speaking in the wise guy voice, it's hard to separate individuals from the pack.   I love the wiretap, but I'd like more video surveillance.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle intrigued me so much I decided to rent the movie version from Netflix.  It was released in 1973 and starred Robert Mitchum.  I enjoyed it even more than the novel.  For one thing, the clothes and cars and settings were out of a time capsule from my college years.  It was filmed around Boston, probably in '72 or early '73.  I arrived at Boston College (George V. Higgins' alma mater) in the fall of 1972.  I even once owned a Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, like the one driven by one of the lowlifes in the movie.  (He gets razzed for it by his crook buddies, understandably.)  The movie easily overcame the problem I had with the book:  my inability to identify with or develop much sympathy for Coyle.  With a world-weary Mitchum in the part , I automatically rooted for him (to no avail).  All the actors in the movie provide the same service, giving faces to the voices of the book.

As a closing aside, It's amazing how adult the movies of the 70s were.  In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, there was no gratuitous romance, no showy violence, no soapbox posturing, and no big name star cast in a part he really isn't right for.  (Tom Cruise, call your office.)  In contrast, 2012's Killing Them Softly, based on another Higgins' novel, Cogan's Trade, was a disappointment.  It had a solid central performance by Brad Pitt, but it was marred by the grand opera style violence that's fashionable now.  Not to mention some high concept parallels to the 2008 financial meltdown that bowed the legs of Higgins' simple plot.  A better film might have sparked a Higgins revival.  This one didn't. 


  1. Great post - I love the phrase "grand opera style violence". Maybe that started with Scarface? I don't know, I just know that it isn't very real. Most violence is not dramatic, on purpose, because the people who are perpetrating it are trying to get away with it. (I'm not talking about the guys who go around with semi-automatics on campuses, etc. - they are performing, center-stage, in a grand opera of their own imagination.) Just enough violence to threaten, hurt, perhaps kill someone, but without anyone else noticing. Many years ago I was sitting in a car, in the parking lot of an urban 7/11, waiting for a friend to come out with the snacks. Next to me was a car in the shadows, and as I sat there, on that hot night, I could hear them talking to someone in the car, and explaining - very matter of factly - what they were going to do to him... I slunk down in the seat so that they wouldn't notice me. Then they took off. It was probably one of the more scary moments of my life - very quiet, very undramatic. Very effective.

  2. Well done, Terry--I like your take on both novels and movies. This discussion reminded me of The Digger's Game, another Higgins novel that was almost entirely dialogue. His name comes up often in my writing classes when we talk about authors who use effective dialogue. So does Elmore Leonard's.

    It's great to hear about books I should read or re-read and movies I should watch or re-watch.

  3. Good blog, Terry. I'm a fan of the "Friends of Eddie Coyle" as well. Loved the style, but had the same problem with it you did. Still, it remains a very effective book--I just re-read it a year ago. Stands the test of time. Loved the movie, too.

  4. I've neither read the book nor seen the movie, but I'm due a couple hours' break and will Netflix it.

    My first editor had to tell me to go back and describe the people. I'd depended primarily on dialogue(which I love to write) and thought it would be nice to let the readers picture my characters as they pleased. I still don't know the natural color of Callie's hair, so I just let her dye it different colors in each book.

    Lots to think about in your words, and I'll settle in with the movie this afternoon.

  5. Higgins was a trial lawyer, and a lot of his dialogue is obviously influenced by actual transcripts. The opening chapter of THE DIGGER'S GAME is a single monologue, for instance, that might be lifted from a genuine interview in an attorney's office (although I'm not saying it was). I never had a problem differentiating the characters because I always their individual voices very distinctive. On the other hand, I grew up in the Boston area, and there's a difference in the way people talk in North Cambridge, say (my turf), and Savin Hill, down in Dorchester (Dennis Lehane's stomping ground). That said, though, Higgins was never very convincing in his action scenes. The best one is the shoot-out at the end of THE PATRIOT GAME, but all too often they just lie there in an indigested lump. His strength was talking the talk.

  6. Terry, it's been about three decades since I read THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. Now I'll have to put it on my reading list again.

  7. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks!

  8. Like RT, I’ve read The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but it was a long while back.

    I found your insight concerning dialogue vs. a reader’s ability to discriminate individual characters, and the idea of an over-reliance on dialogue (at the expense of description) interfering with a reader’s ability to connect with the work, quite interesting. I’ve never considered these aspects in depth before.

    Gonna pick up a copy of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and re-read it with your comments in mind. (Blast it, Terry! Now I have to go buy the book again! LOL)



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