THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE has made it onto the bestseller lists, and should stay there a while. The novel comes in the wake of The French Connection, and has been helped by popular interest in the grimy details of the battle between the police and the underworld. But The Friends of Eddie Coyle stands on its own. It's not a great book, but within the limits Higgins has set for himself, it's an awfully good one, and worth all the money he's going to make from it.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is about smalltime hoods in Boston, the dregs of the underworld, guys who buy and sell guns, transport stolen goods, occasionally carry out a contract for the higher-ups in Providence. These hoods survive through a difficult series of accommodations with the law and the code of the organization. Betrayal is a way of life for these men--it's how they stay out of jail, keep the law happy. But if they're caught, the underworld shows no mercy.
Eddie Coyle is a man who should have learned his lesson. A desk drawer was slammed against his hand once for a mistake that sent a man to prison. Now he's known as Eddie Fingers. But Eddie's up for sentencing in New Hampshire, and he needs to get in good with the law if he is to expect any mercy from the judge. So he tries to play a tough game: buying guns from Jackie Brown for some bank holdups, and at the same time telling the cops about another of Jackie's deals, a sale of machineguns to what looks like a radical group.
Eddie seems to be winning for a while--Jackie Brown is arrested. But the local cops can't help him in New Hampshire as much as he wants. Meanwhile the bank holdups are successful, until a girlfriend of one of the robbers turns them in to the State Police. They're captured. One of them ca favorite of the bosses in Providence) is killed. Who is the prime suspect as the traitor? Eddie, of course, who provided the guns, who needed something to show when he went up for sentencing. A contract comes up from Providence.
THERE IS a tremendous feeling of authenticity about this book. Higgins, a B.C. graduate and Assistant U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, obviously knows what he's writing about. But in addition he's a very fine writer, and that's what's most important about his novel.
The story is told in a series of short scenes, almost entirely in dialogue. Only the most basic scene-setting and background are provided, and there is almost no exposition of states of mind or feelings. Except for the straightforward action sequences, everything is conveyed by the dialogue. And the dialogue is tremendous: not an exact reproduction of lower-class Bostonese (that would simply get on our nerves), but a perfect simulation of the way semi-literates talk. This is Eddie Coyle talking to Jackie Brown:
"Count your fucking knuckles," the stocky man said.
"All of them?" Jackie Brown said.
"Ah Christ," the stocky man said. "Count as many of them as you want. I got four more. One on each finger. Know how I got those? I bought some stuff from a man that I had his name, and it got traced, and the man I bought if for, he went to MCI Walpole for fifteen to twenty-five. Still in there, but he had some friends. I got an extra set of knuckles. Shut my hand in a drawer. Then one of them stomped the drawer shut. Hurt like a tucking bastard. You got no idea how it hurt."
"Jesus," Jackie Brown said.
Another strength of the novel is its setting in and around Boston. Somehow this reinforces our image of the small-time aspect of the characters and their way of life. There's something glamorous about crime in New York or L.A.-- hints of big money, international intrigue; there's nothing exotic about waiting to meet a criminal in the Rexall's in Central Square. Higgins doesn't spend much time evoking the atmosphere. He doesn't need to. A few sentences about the bums on the Common make the point.
THE FLAWS in the novel are minor but irritating. They seem to come from an unsureness in the handling of the form--the unsureness of a first novelist who isn't ready to rely completely on his own talent. During the first bank robbery. Higgins unaccountably goes inside the mind of a banker who is being held hostage and tells a long story about the banker's encounter with a snake in New Hampshire--evidently to transmit the quality of the man's fear. It's all right, but it's completely out of step with the narrative tone. The mistake is all the more noticeable when Higgins later deals with another bank robbery, and this time hits exactly the right note in describing the second banker's emotions.
A somewhat more serious problem is the ending of the novel. Throughout the book, Higgins's point, though very clear, is understated, kept in the background. It's a very nice touch that Eddie Coyle is held responsible for a betrayal he never committed, and that his contracted executioner is a character seen previously only as a police informer. Higgins doesn't make too much of it: he lets us figure it out for ourselves. But then he has something more to say: the gun dealer Jackie Brown, betrayed by Eddie Coyle, is on trial for selling machineguns. He is going to be found guilty. Does he want a lighter sentence? Then he'd better cooperate with the U.S. Attorney... Once again the irony is nice, but this time Higgins spoils it by being too obvious. The prosecutor and the defense attorney are made to commiserate with one another about how this is the way things work: "Is there any end to this shit? Does anything every change in this racket?"--and so on, rubbing the reader's face into the theme of the novel.
By that time, though, we can forgive Higgins almost anything. He succeeds in the two things any popular novelist must achieve: while you're reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle, you can't put it down: once you're finished it, you're sorry it wasn't longer, you want a sequel. Maybe if enough people buy The Friends of Eddie Coyle he'll write one.