Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Books That Grab Me: George Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle

I would probably have never found this book except I’ve started watching re-runs of Tony Bourdain’s No Reservations. His Boston episode was framed as a kind of homage to this book (and the film it inspired). Since I have a great love for both crime fiction and Boston, I had to read it.

Now that I have, I can report it was time well spent. With a caveat or two. The Friends of Eddie Coyle takes a bit of effort to get into. It’s mostly dialogue with a few unnamed characters roaming around, characters who reappear in subsequent chapters with names attached. It’s going to require some brainwork to make some sense of the story.

Is it worth the effort? Yes. Much of the dialogue is so cleverly phrased it will make you smile. Plus, it’s about criminals in and around Boston. Criminals who sell, buy, and resell guns. Criminals who use guns to rob banks. Criminals who use guns to kill snitches. It’s also about overwhelmed police or FBI agents making deals with criminals and reneging on deals with criminals and exposing their deals with criminals to other criminals. It’s a world where women are treated as an afterthought, but the women don’t particularly like it and it begins to cost the criminals.

It’s about a world where everyone needs to be paranoid all the time because there’s just no one to trust. (Like if Orwell had set out to write 1984 but put it in Boston and substituted the mob for his Big Brother apparatus.)

The title character, Eddie Coyle, has federal charges hanging over his head in New Hampshire at the start of the story. He’s looking to make a deal, a man on the make. (Which leads him to getting batted around by an FBI agent in exchange for help with the prosecutor that never quite appears.) Eddie’s a ‘reformed criminal’ who supplies guns to men who’re trying to knock off banks without killing anyone (until they do start killing people). He’s buying guns from a young man who’s selling guns hand over fist to anyone who wants them. A young man who has a big mouth about his business and where he’s doing it. A young man who clues in Eddie Coyle about his biggest and most dangerous transaction.

You see where this is going? Desperate man plus a dangled bait plus the mafia plus an entire culture of suspicion....

Of course it’s all going to end badly. Eddie Coyle will take the blame for giving up the gun dealer (which he did) and for giving up the bank robbery team (which a woman did to spite her boyfriend, one of the bank robbers). The blame for both messes sticks to poor Eddie. I’ll leave you to discover his exact fate, one of the many perverse pleasures in the book.

There are other pleasures, too, not least puzzling out who the various characters are as you read just the words they say. For a while I thought that a man who turned out to be a hired killer was some kind of policeman by the way he spoke. Of course he is a kind of policeman, a parallel police that punished criminals for their infractions.

The other, greater pleasure is the language used to tell this compelling tale. Even the book jacket bragged about “the authentic, elaborately oblique language born of the paradox that rules the underworld: the high value on betrayal – it is the coin of their realm – in a world where betrayal is punishable by maiming or death.”

When a book jacket sounds that appealing – back when they used to really try to write stunners – you know the stuff in between the covers will be a wonder.

Read it. Linger over the conversations. This is a little kind of tragedy, not a king facing the impossible, but a little guy getting squished between the rock and the hard place. You go into it knowing that Coyle will not end well. The value, like with seeing a play or movie for the twentieth time, is the beautiful journey.

(Now I need to find a copy of the film.)

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