Down and Out in Boston

You must read (and watch) Eddie Coyle.

The first thing to know about George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle is that it directly entered the crime-fiction canon upon its 1970 publication. The second thing to know is that it holds up as both a writer’s-writer thriller and as popular pulp, with Dennis Lehane introducing Picador’s new 40 th-anniversary reissue of the novel by heralding it as “the game-changing crime novel of the last fifty years”—a moderate claim compared with that of Elmore Leonard, who hails it as the best crime novel, period. The third thing to know about The Friends of Eddie Coyle is that, as Lehane beat me to quipping, Eddie Coyle doesn’t actually have any friends. When “my friend” is said in these pages, it is used with far less affection than in the case of a guy at a bodega or a coffee cart man addressing a patron.

Eddie Coyle, a rusty little cog in the machine of New England crime—seen operating mostly around Boston but controlled, it is insinuated, from the acclaimed Mafia sewer that is Providence—is a gunrunner at the retail level. In the first chapter, he explains why he has one mutilated hand: A while back, he sold some guns that turned out to be traceable and were indeed traced back to their purchaser, who was soon sentenced to hard time. Subsequently, some of the prisoner’s “friends” taught him, Coyle, a lesson by slamming his left hand in a drawer.

A desk drawer? A dresser drawer? It goes unsaid, but while the meticulous writer must know, the reader doesn’t care. Among the virtues of Eddie Coyle is its air of indeterminacy. The writing is not so much deliberately vague as purposefully shadowed, with the detail mostly a matter of grimy atmosphere and, somehow, most every chapter beginning in medias res and the reader thus blissfully disoriented. Generally, the introduction of the characters’ motives precedes the revelation of their names. Sometimes the absorbing sketchy quality proceeds from the clinical and laconic third-person narration, which can read like the diffident testimony of an expert witness or the neutered report of an arresting officer. Eddie Coyle is more often identified as “the stocky man” than as “Eddie Coyle.”

Point is, the “friends” who taught Coyle a lesson—a dispassionate business lesson, there’s no Mamet-type emotionally heated avarice here—are more accurately described as loyal underlings, whatever loyalty might mean in this context. Which is not much. Eddie is also a rat trying to gnaw his way out of doing time for a thing up in New Hampshire, and he counts as another “friend” Dave Foley, the cop for whom he is subcompetently finking. (As Foley chides Coyle in a wonderfully comma-less bit of dialogue: “You tell me about a guy that’s going to get hit and fifteen minutes later he gets hit.”) Coyle hopes that providing some quality information will guarantee that Foley will put in a good word for him with an “old friend” in the U.S. attorney’s office, to which end Coyle does some limited ratting on the guy selling him guns. He’s bright enough to conceive of a double cross but too dull to execute it properly.

Foley, in turn, tells a colleague that another stool pigeon—a bar owner named Dillon, through whose pay phone the wife-avoiding wiseguys exchange their coordinates—is a “friend” of his. And then we have the stewardess who’s shacked up with bank robber Jimmy Scalisi, the only client of Eddie’s we meet, maybe Eddie’s only client, maybe the mobster controlling him exclusively, who knows? Once she begins to suspect she’s a gun moll, she starts talking to an acquaintance in the state police. What really set her off was that Scalisi disrespected her: “My friend likes to talk about fucking me in front of his friends.”

This is the stuff of a great genre novel, though it’s not exactly clear what that genre is. Eddie Coyle fluidly combines elements of a procedural and a thriller, of suspense and social realism. What it isn’t is a Chandler-type mystery novel about a sleuth battling his own cynicism. Here, the sleuthing remains in the background, like a surveillance van, and the cynicism is a precondition of existence. Further, most hard-boiled classics allow their villains only so much time to talk, while this one gets its ripe flavor from their dialogue—tough talk, dumb bluffs, weaseling hedges, empty promises, pungent shoptalk, and by-the-by marital complaints.

To hear that dialogue crash and flow, check out director Peter Yates’ 1973 film adaptation of the book. Recently available from the Criterion Collection, it stars Robert Mitchum in the title role, meaning that he’s not a hero, not even an anti-hero, just a victim of circumstance. As A.O. Scott said last month in a Critics’ Pick Video at, Coyle is “almost like a secondary character in his own movie.”

That movie is an exemplar of the art of adaptation. Journeyman screenwriter Paul Monash faithfully mimeographed much of the novel’s dialogue while also streamlining the story for maximum speed and rebuilding the plot in a way that retains its tensions and increases its clarity. (One of its few faults is that its score has dated badly; in combination with the character’s broad sideburns and earth-tone turtlenecks, the chicka-chicka soft-porny soundtrack puts the contemporary viewer in the mind of Spike Jonze’s video for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.”) The exteriors capture Massachusetts at its melancholy worst. Under the washed-out powder-blue sky, the grays of the roads are superlatively dingy, and the reds of the masonry shine with a respectability that these hoods will never achieve. There’s a special menace in this rendering of the scene constituting the book’s first chapter: Coyle talks about his busted hand, but the camera never pulls in on it. The film is all the more powerful for keeping us at a distance, as if it’s tailing these felons at a cautious distance to give us a delicious view of low life.