By Con Chapman
George V. Higgins created a style that was at first revelatory, then degenerated into a tic at the end of his career.
Crime fiction suffers from guilt by association with its subject. Why, asks a snooty friend, should you be concerned with a bunch of lowlifes when you could be reading literature? As Edmund Wilson (who wasn’t a snob) put it in a memorable 1945 put-down in The New Yorker, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”
And yet there are writers in the genre who belong with the best of their generations: Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle among the English, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett among Americans. Their works survive because they hold our interest in the way that pulp fiction does, but with a grace that transforms what would otherwise just be yesterday’s tabloid news.
To this group it would not be too rash to nominate, two decades after his death, George V. Higgins, who spawned — for better or worse — the Boston noir school of fiction that has become a leading export of these parts.
Higgins created a style that was at first revelatory, then degenerated into a tic at the end of his career. Pick up a copy of his The Digger’s Game. You won’t encounter anything resembling “It was a dark and stormy night” until you’re well into the book. He built his stories entirely out of dialogue, though it was far from the snappy repartee between a latter-day Holmes and Watson. His characters were small-time crooks and low-paid representatives of the state — cops and prosecutors — whose job it is to put bad guys behind bars.
A picture from Higgins’s college days shows a slim, affected, pipe-smoking (is “twit” too strong a word?) hanging out with other members of the Boston College literary magazine. He wanted to be a high-class writer, but he no doubt felt the contrast between what he knew — the blue-collar towns he grew up in (Brockton, Rockland) — and the world of belles lettres he yearned to enter. After graduation he became a reporter with the Associated Press, then decided that the wages of journalism were too slim and got a law degree from Boston College. He became a government lawyer in state and federal organized crime units.
Higgins achieved success 50 years ago with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, his first published novel (he claimed to have written 14 earlier volumes that he couldn’t sell). That book, which appeared when Higgins was 33, received considerable praise from high quarters, including Norman Mailer, who memorably opined “What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.” At the time, Higgins was “the fuzz” (i.e., on the side of the police, a lesson in how quickly slang ages). Eddie Coyle was filled with talk from victims and perpetrators of crime, some of which he had heard (on wiretaps) when the speakers thought nobody was listening. If, as the old saying goes, character is who you are when no one’s looking, Higgins had access to the criminal stuff by the pallet-load in his day job. Eddie Coyle was made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum in 1973. Higgins decorated his law office with a poster from the film to let everyone know he was more than just a legal drudge — he had Hollywood cachet.
Boston is a schizophrenic town; it looks down on the rest of the country but yet suffers from an inferiority complex when it comes to New York. Higgins was simultaneously envied and scorned here; he was the local boy who made good — the New York Times and New Yorker lauded him — but he was working-class Irish-Catholic, the one ethnic group that at the time could be safely disparaged among polite Boston society. The only way for an Irishman to trump a Boston Brahmin is to go Anglo on him, and Higgins did just that. His short story collection Sins of the Fathers was published in England, but not here; when he died in 1999 his obituaries noted that the British Book Marketing Council selected Eddie Coyle as one of the 20 best novels by an American after World War II. The smart money says that Higgins probably wrote that into a draft and told his press agent to make sure it stayed there.
There’s an old Irish saying: If they’re going to call you a horse thief, you might as well steal some. The defensive strategy is clear: if people don’t think much of you, you might as well fulfill their expectations. Higgins became that most annoying of personalities — a self-conscious raconteur. He became a fixture at Locke-Ober, the snobbiest restaurant in Boston at the time (it didn’t admit women until 1970). He typically consumed several martinis over lunch; he liked to talk and he liked to drink, and he probably did a little too much of both. He wrote iconoclastic columns for both the Herald and the Globe — “politically incorrect” before the term was coined — and began to believe his own blarney. In one memorable piece he claimed that neither he, nor as far as he knew, any of his friends had ever suffered from impotence — surely the one subject about which a man may be expected to lie.
I encountered Higgins in the flesh in the late ’70s when he taught a class at Boston College Law School. The course was one — Trial Practice — I would never use, but as a would-be writer I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet a living, breathing novelist. Higgins set the tone from the first, arriving late with a few drinks in him. He was courtroom loud; his teaching was heavy on anecdotes, light on instruction. As the semester progressed we realized that — whatever his reputation as a writer — Higgins wasn’t cut out to teach. Why he decided to try was a mystery. My guess is that he liked to tell war stories and be paid for it. After all, he was both a writer and a lawyer — two occupations not known for fostering underdeveloped egos.
Higgins’s style sometimes lapsed into self-parody when his all-dialogue conceit deteriorated into logorrhea. Instead of two characters bantering back and forth, soliloquies would run on for pages, often larded (too heavily) with Boston working-class wisecracks. Eventually, he became a prisoner of the milieu that had made him famous. He never wrote his way out of the world of crime — perhaps he figured why mess with success?
Higgins’s literary star power has been in decline in America since his death, though his reputation in England remains high. His early work deserves to be reread, and by more than just fans of first-rate crime fiction. He did that rarest of things, which most writers only hope to achieve. He made it new, as Ezra Pound put it, recording the seedy world around him in a way that no one else had before.
Con Chapman is the author of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press).