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||George V(incent) Higgins (1939-1999)|
American writer who was noted for his masterful dialogue and knowledge of the criminal underworld. Several of Higgins's works explored the customs and mores of the Boston Irish. He was especially interest in how his characters talk to one another and how the speech characterizes the speaker. Higgins's most famous novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) was selected in 1985 as one of the twenty best American novels since World War II by the British Booksellers Association. The author himself did not like to be regarded as a crime writer, maintaining that he wrote "novels".
"He is a writer against whom other writers compare their talents. Elmore "Dutch" Leonard, David Mamet, John Gregory Dunne, Mordecai Richler, and Ward Just each cite Higgins as influential to their work. The quality of his dialogue is nearly unmatched in twentieth-century literature. He has brought about a renewed interest in New England's customs, history, and people. Yet, since his early novels, Higgins have never attained the broad readership that would have made his oeuvre part of the literary canon." ('George V. Higgins' by Erwin H. Ford II in Mystery and Suspense Writers, Vol. 1, ed. by Robin W. Winks, 1998)
George Vincent Higgins II, named after his father's uncle, was born in Brockton, Massachusetts. His Irish-American
parents were both schoolteachers and avid readers. Higgins remained
their only child. Due to a difficult delivery his mother, Doris, was
prevented from having more children. Giving up teaching, she centered
her life on her son; also John Higgins had high expectations for him
The family had been for a generation in Rockland, a shoe town, where little George Higgins grew up. His upbringing was Catholic, and his Irish-Catholicism influenced deeply his writing, but he did not to "Sister's Schools" run by nuns, but attended public schools. In his boyhood Higgins read among others the works of Ernest Hemingway, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and John O'Hara. At the age of fifteen he wrote his first long piece of fiction, called Operation Cincinnatus, which he destroyed in the 1970s. Before publishing Eddie Coyle, Higgins finished some ten books that he either discarded or were rejected by publishers.
graduating from Rockland High School in 1957 ‒ he was the best student
‒ Higgins qialified for a scholarship at Harvard. However, he
College, a small Catholic institution, where he edited the student
literary journal The Sylus.
When Robert Frost came to Boston College to read his poetry, and wanted
the boys to sit at his feet, Higgins refused; Frost was "walled of by
reverence," he tought. (George V. Higgins: Life and Writings by Erwin H. Ford II, 2014, p. 31)
In 1961-62 Higgins studied at Stanford University, California,
receiving his M.A. in 1965. Stanford's creative writing semainars,
conducted by Wallace Stegner, had fine reputation, and Higgins wanted
how to write fiction," which he found out "can't be taught, but I
didn't know that then." ('1972: Geroge V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle', by Mike Nicol, in Books to Die For edited by John Connolly & Declan Burke, 2012)
Morever, Higgins did not like Stegner, and Irving Howe, who led
seminars on Hawthorne and Melville, was a former Trotskyite, "intensely
Jewish and intensely socialist and . . . inclined to dogmatize." (George V. Higgins: Life and Writings by Erwin H. Ford II, 2014, p. 33) He returned from Stanford to Boston with a bleeding ulcer. It also kept him from being sent to fight in Vietnam.
From 1962 to 1966 Higgins worked as a reporter and journalist for the Providence, Rhode Island Journal and Evening Bulletin and later for the Associated Press in Springfield and Boston. As a reporter, Higgins encountered the New England underworld that was to become his source for his novels. In 1965 he entered Boston College Law School, earning his J.D. in 1967. Higgins was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in the same year. He worked as a legal assistant, a deputy assistant attorney general (1967-69) and assistant attorney general (1969-70) for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts (1970-73) and a special assistant U.S. attorney (1973-74). During these years there was a period of intense rivalry between the Irish and Italian mafian in the city, and Higgins prosecuted a number of underworld murders.
In 1974 Higgins started his career as a criminal attorney in private
practice. He defended against criminal charges such clients as the
Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy and the Black Panther Eldridge
Cleaver. Higgins was a consultant at National Institute of Law
Enforcement and Criminal Law, Washington, D.C. (1970-71), instructor in
trial practice at Boston College Law School in 1973-74 and 1978-79. He
wrote for the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Times of London, the Washington Post, the Boston Herald American, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic Monthly.
In 1987 Higgins was appointed professor of creative writing at the
State University of New York at Buffalo. He also was a teacher at
Boston University. Higgins was maried twice, first to Elizabeth
Mulkerin, they divorced in 1979, and second to Loretta Lucas Cubberley.
Higgins had a drinking problem but never considered himself an
alcoholic. His colleagues at the Boston Globe and Bostonian friends knew that it was not the case. Noteworthy, some of Higgins's characters, such as Mark Frolio in Defending Billy Ryan
(1992), touched upon the issue. Mark's words likely echo the author's own thoughts: ""I've got a drinking
problem, you see." He picked up his glass and drained it. ". . .
My problem and I get along fine. It's their problem with my problem that's the problem.""
Part of The Friends of Eddie Coyle first appeared in a literary magazine, North American Review. The awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating selected it in 1987 for his list of the one hundred best crime novels. Critics compared its menacing language to that of Ernest Hemingway in his short story 'The Killers'. Norman Mailer said: "What I can't get over is that so good first novel was written by the fuzz." In his introduction to the Owl Books edition of the book (2000) Elmore Leonard wrote that "in the beginning, both Higgins and I had to put up with labels applied to our work, critics calling us the second coming of Raymond Chandler." The authors met first time at the Harbourfront Reading Series in Toronto, and agreed that neither of them had come out of the Hammett-Chandler school of crime writing.The book was made into a film in 1973. Peter Yates directed it as a series of edgy, convincing conversations. Robert Mitchum was Eddie, the doomed crook, and Peter Boyle his best friend Dillon, who accepts the commission to murder him.
brilliant ear for dialogue Higgins had developed by listening
wiretapes and reading transcripts. It has been estimated that
eighty-five percent of Higgins's early novels are dialogue, "with about
two-thirds of the "he said" variety. (American Mystery and Detective Novels: A Reference Guide by Larry Landrum, 1999, p. 64) Only Quentin Tarantino, who
borrowed the name Jackie Brown from The Friends of Eddie Coyle for his film, could be considered Higgins's equal in dialogue. In Eddie Coyle
the protagonist is a smalltime hoodlum and hustler who tries to avoid
giving evidence against his friends. He runs guns to a team of bank
robbers while selling information to the cops. Eddie's betrayals
ultimately lead to his death. Higgins's literary trademark was already
fully developed: the action was mostly transmitted through dialogue.
With The Digger's Game (1973) and Cogan's Trade (1974), about a professional killer, Higgins's first novel was part of a loose trilogy about the criminal underworld.
Andrew Dominik's screen version of Cogan's Trade from 2012, entitled Killing Them Softly, moved the events from the 1970s Boston to New Orleans during the 2008 election season. Brad Pitt played Cogan, a hitman, who likes to kill softly, with minimum fuss. "It seems as if I've been seeing versions of this story since forever," said Robert Ebert in his review. "A cast is assembled from various flavors of tough guys, they're placed in a dreary and joyless cityscape, they hold a series of fraught conversations, there is a great deal of suffering and blood, and most of them are required to die by the end." (rogerebert.com, November 29, 2012)
"When I met him on a trip to England in 1986 and greeted him, open-armed, as a fellow crime-writer among a conference full of academics I received a swift rebuff. 'I am a novelist,' he said. Or he might have said 'I'm a novelist, is all.' I contend that what emerged on to the pages in The Friends of Eddie Coyle was in fact a crime novel, and an important one." (H.R.F. Keating in Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987)
Higgins's fourth novel, A City on a Hill (1975), was
set in the political world of Washington, D.C., and was again
based almost exclusively on nonstop dialogue. "This may be the
novel of Washington at the staff level," stated Christopher Lydon in
review (The New York Times, March 30, 1975). The author's sympathy for the little people and his social conscience marked The Judgment of Deke Hunter (1976), which focused on the moral education of a young state police corporal. A Choice of Enemies (1984)
was an ambitious novel about the downfall of a veteran Massachusetts
politician named Bernie Morgan. Higgins thought that the book should
have won the Pulitzer Prize, but reviewers were disappointed: Peter Andrews said in The New York Times
that it represents the final collapse of Higgins's "ongoing experiment
in trying to create a kind of gutter prose- poetry as a vehicle for
narrative storytelling." ('Gutters of the Statehouse' by Peter Andrews, in The New York Times, February 12, 1984)
In the 1980s Higgins wrote two novels about Jeremiah Kennedy, a quickwitted and hard-drinking criminal lawyer in Boston, who spends his life defending people he knows are guilty. Kennedy for the Defence (1980) and Penance for Jerry Kennedy (1985) were inspired by his experiences as a criminal defence attorney. Higgins returned to the series character in Defending Billy Ryan and Sandra Nichols Found Dead (1996). Among other courtroom novels is Outlaws (1987), about a gang of urban terrorists brought to trial. In Impostors (1986), a study of corruption and hypocrisy, Higgins used his experiences covering Watergate. A Change of Gravity (1997), a novel about friendship, politics, and devotion to duty, continued Higgins's works in the serious literature. The story was written almost entirely through dialogue and unfolded in a nonlinear way.
'Your ex-husband?' she said.
Higgins also published non-fiction. The Friends of Richard Nixon (1975) was an inside account of the Watergate trials. In Wonderful Years, Wondereful Years (1988) Higgins examined his Catholic background, On Writing (1990) he gave advice for those who write to publish, and Progress of the Seasons
(1989) was about baseball. Higgins died of a massive heart attack, one
week before his 60th birthday, on November 6, 1999, in Milton, Mass. In
the same year came out The Agent (1999),
a story about a high-profile sports agent. The first part of the book
is dominated by the voice of the superagent Alexander Drouhin, whose
death is examined by his underlings in the second part. Of oll of
Higgins' novels, this work came closest to the traditional whodunit.
Higgins's final book was At End of Day (2000), based
on a true story about two gangsters, Arthur McKeon and his top
henchman, Nick Cistaro, and their relationship with two FBI agents.
Higgins published 26 novels and 4 nonfiction works. Allegedly a Jerry Kennedy novel, entitled Defending Tommy Dees
was left unfinished. Although
Higgins's innovative way of using dialogue and monologue
was widely praised by critics and writers alike,
he did not have many followers, with the exception of Elmore Leonard, a
unique writer in his own right. Leonards rule "Never use a verb other
than "said" to carry dialogue"in Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing (2007) could have been stated by Higgins. Also the playwright David Mamet has acknowledged his debt to him.