She grew up in South Boston, so we were curious about an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s (@noreseravations) Travel Channel show “No Reservations” that took place in Boston. The episode focused on the tougher, rougher side of Boston, and Bourdain talked about his obsession: The Friends of Eddie Coyle. My wife, being a fan of crime novels, decided to pick it up.
Sorry, Anthony, but she wasn’t a fan. As she put it, “I like crime-solving novels, not novels that are just about criminals.” When she put it down, I picked it up. It is less than 200 pages, so I figure I’d give it a read. I liked it, but I can see why she didn’t.
Originally written in 1970 (and later turned into a movie), Coyle is about criminals, almost exclusively. Mostly small-time crooks hustling to survive. Eddie Coyle is a gun runner who is facing sentencing in a few weeks. While still living a life of crime, Eddie is also talking to the cops, deciding who to rat out in exchange for his freedom. See, Eddie doesn’t have any friends. He’s surrounded by criminals, each doing the same calculus that Eddie is doing. It’s a rough, gritty world.
What struck me most about the novel is that it’s written nearly entirely using dialog. Each chapter is basically a conversation between crooks or a crook and a cop. But author George V. Higgins isn’t always immediately clear as to who is having the conversation. As one might expect in a novel about gangsters, Higgins uses nicknames. But they are not the outlandish things you might expect–no “Jimmy the Squid” or something like that here. Instead, for example, when three criminals are working together, the one who talks is simply referred to as “the spokesman,” and another criminal is sometimes referred to as “the stout one.” Higgins uses this technique to slowly reveal the Venn diagrams that make up the Boston underworld. As the novel progresses, the overlapping plans and people become clearer, leading up to one heckuva climax. But it’s not very user friendly. There were a couple of times I had to go back and re-read a couple passages to confirm my suspicions about who was who. My wife was flat out not a fan of this technique.
I can see why Bourdain might obsess over it. There is a lot of subtlety at play in Coyle that would reward re-reading. I didn’t come away with a new obsession, but I liked it. As a reader, I was engaged, and as a writer, it serves as a fantastic model of what dialog can do not only to advance the plot, but also reveal character. Check it out if you’d like to try something different too.