Like Erle Stanley Gardner a generation earlier, George V. Higgins (1939 – 1999) was a lawyer-turned-writer who uses his extensive legal experience to render both sides of the criminal justice system with appealing realism. His novels are driven by the characters’ point-of-view dialogue, which is filled with criminal slang, circumlocutions, and verbal tics. This overheard quality forces readers to piece together the narrative. Roderick MacLeish commented in Washington Post Book World that “the plot of a Higgins novel – suspense, humor and tragedy – is a blurrily perceived skeleton within the monsoon of dialogue.” 1
Born in Brockton, Massachusetts, Higgins attended Boston College and was a journalist for three years before getting an M.A. (Stanford, 1965) and law degree (Boston College, 1967). After two years with a law firm, he became a government prosecutor, working for seven years in anti-organized crime jobs, including Assistant U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. He entered private practice in 1973 for ten years, teaching part-time at his alma mater and other institutions.
Higgins is best known for his first three novels: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972), The Digger’s Game (1973), and Cogan’s Trade (1974). His use of dialogue to reveal character and plot led to immediate comparison with Hemingway. Reviewing The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that it was “one of the best of its genre I have read since Hemingway’s ‘The Killers.’ Coyle is a struggling mid-level broker in Boston’s illegal gun trade, but there is nothing glamorous about his life.” Peter S. Prescott writes that the author eschews “sentimentality, private eyes and innocent victims to write exclusively of criminals who work on each other in a community where sin is less talked of than are mistakes.” 2 These criminals worry about money and family problems as they seek a middle-class existence, but their stories are told in a criminal patois that some critics find difficult to understand and insufficiently
individuating. “This may well be Higgins’ main point,” Leo Harris counters – that the small-time hoods are minor variations on a criminal Everyman. The Digger’s Game, continuing this technique, treats a small timer who gambles away $18,000 in Las Vegas, putting himself in debt to a loan shark, and the things he does to try to pay off his debt without getting killed. Cogan’s Trade, Higgins’ third and most ambitious novel, returns to Boston to explore the code of justice enforced by mob hit-man and sociopath Jackie Cogan. But the plot is only to be gleaned in bits of the characters’ dialogue, making this a difficult novel. “Like Joyce,” writes Roderick MacLeish in the Times Literary Supplement, “Higgins uses language in torrents, beautifully crafted, ultimately intending to create a panoramic impression.” 3
Long interested in politics, Higgins’ fourth novel, A City on a Hill (1975), takes up the treachery of Washington in the Watergate era. He returned to this topic later in A Choice of Enemies (1984). Higgins also created something like a series hero in Jerry Kennedy, a Boston criminal trial lawyer featured in three novels: Kennedy for the Defense (1980), Penance for Jerry Kennedy (1985), and Defending Billy Ryan(1992). Unlike his earlier work, these novels are character-driven. Lawyer Kennedy typically plea bargains his cases, so there is not much suspense, but the complexities of his decisions focus readers’ attention on characterization.
Higgins also wrote six non-fiction books on politics, baseball, and writing. The best-known is The Friends of Richard Nixon (1975). His recent work is more varied and, some critics contend, more complex. In such books as Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years (1988) and Trust (1989), Higgins examined marriage and a corrupt basketball player turned used-car salesman, eliciting comparisons to John Updike’s Rabbit novels. In Bomber’s Law (1993), the cops pursue each other, leading to questions about motive and less attention to violence. In A Jerry Kennedy Novel (1996), Higgins returned to the Kennedy character, but then he produced another reflective digression in 1997, A Change of Gravity. His return to the genre, The Agent (1999), features a detective investigating the death of a bi-sexual sports agent. Higgins ends up a long way from Erle Stanley Gardner, having re-mixed the ingredients of legal drama with the psychological interests of Macdonald and the dialogue and sexual scandal of James M. Cain. Like Hammett and Wambaugh, his personal experience in the world of crime to create narratives took the genre in new directions. He died a week before his 60th birthday, November 6, 1999.
1 Roderick MacLeish, in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 51, 213. Original in Washington Post Book World. 2 Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Peter Prescott, in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 51, 213. 3 Harris, Ibid, 213; MacLeish, Ibid., 214