When The Friends of Eddie Coyle was published in 1972, crime fiction was enjoying something of a renaissance. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather had been published just a few years earlier, captivating readers with its lurid portrayal of a wealthy, powerful Mafia family and their rigidly enforced codes of honor and duty. The rich, Byzantine world that Puzo created and Francis Ford Coppola brought to life in the 1972 film adaptation was overwhelmingly deep, a supposed underworld that lurked in the darkness but pulled all the strings, like the stark hand depicted on the book’s dust jacket.
The Godfather also slyly interwove the pulpy Mafia intrigue with a compelling family (small ‘f’) drama that was easy to relate to. Even if audiences weren’t dodging bullets, they could empathize with the struggle to live up to one’s parents’ expectations.
In light of all this, it’s no wonder that George V. Higgins’ short novel (and its 1973 film adaptation) didn’t exactly catch the public’s fancy even though demand for crime fiction was very high. Where The Godfather was glamorous, exciting, and multilayered, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was stark and relentlessly focused. A former prosecutor, Higgins strove for verisimilitude, taking bits and pieces from his own encounters with Boston’s seedy criminal underworld to form the core of his story.
Puzo’s high-minded, manicured Mafiosos are nowhere to be found in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Higgins’ subjects are the low-lives, creeps, and ne’er-do-wells who get their hands dirty and never think to wash up. For these unfortunate souls, crime isn’t a way to get ahead, it’s merely a way to get by, to keep their head above water for a few weeks until the next score can be lined up. It’s a dismal lifestyle that doesn’t lead to mansions and fancy sports cars, but to a life sentence in MCI Walpole or an ignominious execution in a beat up sedan.
Nevertheless, Higgins’ portrayal of the gritty Boston underworld inspired many other writers, like Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane (who provides the introduction to this 40th Anniversary Edition, which I should note is actually two years early) who have carried the author’s respect for truth into their own work and have helped to turn The Friends of Eddie Coyle into a cult classic. The titular Eddie Coyle is described by Lehane as an “antihero”, but even that may be too generous. He’s a thug, caught in a bind.
Caught transporting stolen cargo, he’s facing three years in jail unless he can provide evidence that leads to a bigger arrest. The law knows that Eddie is connected to a galaxy of thieves, murderers, and smugglers, and is willing to deal; Coyle never really hesitates about ratting someone out, though he’d prefer it be a small timer who poses no danger to him. As his sentencing approaches, his desperation pushes him to consider more drastic solutions to his problem, just as it makes his so-called friends anxious about what he may end up doing.
Genre fiction is known for its emphasis on plot, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle takes that focus to its extreme. Higgins’ set pieces are Spartan, driven entirely by dialog. Chapters tend to involve two or three characters talking back and forth, with only minute establishing details, such as what town they’re in and what they’re driving, in between. It’s an effective means of characterization. These are men of action, of interaction, not men of thoughtfulness or contemplation.
The inner thoughts of Coyle and his comrades are never revealed. The author makes no effort to delve deeply into their psyches, perhaps because they have no real inner lives. Though they make their trade in deception, they communicate everything one needs to know through their behavior. Nobody’s fooling anybody, really, and their pretense of camaraderie and politeness is kept up more out of obligation than for any meaningful reason. These men have to act like they aren’t going to stab each other in the back simply to keep business moving, but each one knows there truly is no honor among thieves.
Though Higgins does an excellent job of rendering his characters through their speech and movements, with a knack for local color and the familiar quirks of the Boston working class vernacular, the book’s minimalist style makes it feel almost mechanical at times. It’s unceremonious to a fault; even the book’s climax sneaks up on the reader and passes without much fanfare. While that fits the book’s overarching theme of the banality of crime, it can be difficult for those looking to delve more deeply into the underworld rather than simply admire its scummy surface.
Lehane calls Coyle “tragic”, but again, that’s almost too good for a character that at no point betrays any compunction about his line of work. He doesn’t possess a tragic flaw. He’s simply flawed through and through. Any sympathy he engenders is merely a trick of structure, granted to the protagonist out of habit. The book could easily been titled The Friends of Dillon, with the book’s shady bartender as the protagonist, and the importance and thematic coherence of the story would be just as engrossing.
The book’s closing dialog between a prosecutor and a defense attorney sheds some light on the empty feeling The Friends of Eddie Coyle leaves readers with, the two lawyers acting like a Greek chorus laying down judgment on all that transpired. Higgins’ message, about crime’s futility and the falseness of its glamour as portrayed by Puzo and Coppola, is an important one, and his book more than succeeds in conveying it. The Friends of Eddie Coyle pulls no punches and shatters any Romantic notion you may have about the life of an outlaw.