Friday, August 14, 2009

An enemy of The Friends of Eddie Coyle?

Well, not an enemy, really, but George V. Higgins' novel is such a foundational text for hard-boiled crime writers everywhere that any criticism smacks of heresy, and I have at least one to offer.

First, though, it's easy to imagine what a bracing effect the novel's style, almost all dialogue, with bits of elliptical description, must have had when the book appeared the early 1970s. That part still works fine, and it would be interesting to look back at what Elmore Leonard was doing at the time. This was just before he moved over from Westerns to crime novels. Did Higgins influence Leonard?

Second, that dialogue contains some funny lines. My favorite so far:
"`I never been able to understand a man that wanted to use a machinegun,' the stocky man said. `It's life if you get hooked with it and you can't really do much of anything with it except fight a war, maybe.'"
The substance of the dialogue is surprisingly fresh considering that the book was written amid the hangover from the 1960s, and Higgins couldn't help that he was writing during what may have been the most embarrassing fashion era in Western history. He had to describe all those god-awful fringes and suede jackets.

But the book's bad-guys-are-people-too message has dated badly, or rather, so many writers have delivered it so much better since that Higgins' version reads today as plodding, rudimentary and ponderous. Dillon's long virtual monologue in Chapter Six is so patently tendentious (It's one of the only parts of the book so far that has no funny lines; that's how we know Higgins is being serious), and it's so damned long that I was tempted to flip ahead – not a good thing in a book of just 150 pages.

Chapter Six certainly slows the story down. I don't know enough about crime writing of the early 1970s to call it a bad piece of writing. Maybe it has just dated badly. I invite friends of The Friends of Eddie Coyle to weigh in, particularly on the chapter in question and on Higgins's role as a pioneer in the bad-guys-are-just-working-stiffs school.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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79 Comments:

Anonymous Garbhan said...

As you know, Peter, I'm a bit of a Higgins buff. But I agree absolutely with your concerns about 'Eddie Coyle'. It gets a lot of billing because it was his breakthrough book and later became a Mitchum film. But it's not a patch on 'Imposters' or his Jerry Kennedy (defence attorney) series, by which stage he'd perfected his art. A couple of critics reckon he lost it again a little towards the end, but even then, there was no better exponent of sharp New England dialogue.

August 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had you in mind among those authors who love Higgins. I even thought of your work when reading Eddie's visit to Scalisi's and Wanda's trailer:

"`It's confidence,' Scalisi said. `You look them right in the eye and say: Hey, I gotta go away for a while. They'll buy it."

You're not kidding that The Friends of Eddie Coyle gets lots of billing. One doesn't hear much about his other work today (and I've read none of it). Any of his books except Eddie Coyle could qualify for Patti's Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books.

I finished the book last night, and my comment about Dillon's monologue also applies to the final scene with the prosecutor and the defense lawyer. The final line is a bit too faux-weighty to feel like a natural part of the story. But good God, I've just looked at Higgins' bibliography, and the man wrote a lot, about a book a year for almost thirty years. So I'll grant that he had plenty of opporunity to work out any beginner's imperfections.

August 15, 2009  
Anonymous Garbhan said...

It's 23 years since I read Coyle, as part of a trilogy with 'The Digger's Game' and 'Cogan's Trade'. I loved the way he would allow the most seriously damaged characters to be noble and heroic at times. Even his criminals had fifty shades of grey.
I've spent the day wandering round the house collecting up my Higgins books, and I think I'm going to start them again when I come back from my e-reader-assisted holidays.
There's a great line in one of them about a character's son being "too dumb to stand in out of the rain". And I'm determined to find it again.

August 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He must have been one of the first to give even the bad guys moments of nobility. I'd guess he just tried a bit too hard in his first book. I'd be interested to see what he did in later books. So, where should I start if I want to read more Higgins?

I like a lot of what Higgins did in Eddie Coyle. He'd leave readers to figure out from context the meaning of slang terms, for instance, which is one way of keeping the reader on his toes. That probably contributed to what the New York Times called the book's "authenticity" (though, I wondered, as I always do when users invoke that term, how the reviewer knew the book was "authentic.")

August 15, 2009  
Anonymous Garbhan said...

Good starting place is 'Kennedy for the Defense', the first of four chronicling the life of a dissolute Boston lawyer with lovably shady clients. 'Imposters' is a wonderfully twisted tale about a TV producer who shoots dead the drunk driver who killed his son - and the establishment's attempts not to throw him in jail. And several of the later books do a very nice line in white-collar crime, particularly fraud.
Incidentally, 'Eddie Coyle' wasn't Higgins's first book at all. According to his biog, he wrote 14 novels before it, which never saw the light of day and he subsequently pulped.

August 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He was around thirty years old when wrote Eddie Coyle. Lord above, the man must have worked hard.

The name Kennedy has special resonance in Massachusetts, of course. But it was also the name of one of Frederick Nebel's protagonists, a dissolute newspaperman. Perhaps the name is also Higgins' tribute to a beloved Black Mask-era character.

Imposters also sounds like a tale for our time, perhaps with touches of Fredric Brown and Donald Westlake, both admirable writers by whom to be touched.

August 15, 2009  
Anonymous Garbhan said...

Just located another great one in a dusty box. 'Trust' deals with the trials of a used car salesman - the type that fills the gearbox with sand. There's a line in it I'm trying to find, in which the hero's brother is warning him about overreach. The advice amounts to this: if you're going to rip someone off, make sure you score as big as possible, because only an idiot will come back to give you a second chance. Better in the long-term to do business like the rest of the world and skim ten percent of the top, where nobody notices.
Away to Italy - ciao!

August 16, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

I think it's comparatively rare for pioneering texts to stand up in the long term, particularly if they're renowned for stylistic and technical elements more than they are for smoothness, plot and character. I'm reminded of old movies here - there's lots of shiny MGM films that are still perfectly watchable, if totally forgettable, whereas a lot of objectively "better" films, which had a greater impact on subsequent film history, are painfully hard to watch now even if you recognise their importance. (We've discused Little Caesar before, for example.)

August 16, 2009  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

I have not read "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" in many years so I can't comment on chapter six (but I plan to read the novel again soon).

I'm not sure I would use the word "nobility" to describe his working-class hoods in the book. I would simply call them human. And through their dialogue they revealed the way they thought of themselves and each other.

You must remember that this was a time when organized crime novels, true crime books, TV and films mostly portrayed mob bosses and high-level criminals, such as "The Godfather." I always thought of "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" as the anti-Godfather.

These were street-level criminals that Higgins knew from his days as a reporter and an assistant U.S. Attorney. He heard them speak to each other via wiretaps and he spoke to them as well.

The book was realistic to me as I grew up with South Philly guys just like these (and I've also heard wiretaps and read court transcripts of wiretaps).

He nailed low-level criminals, in my view. His first novel is still my favorite of his.

August 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Buon viaggio, Garbhan.

Trust is a fine title for a book about a used-car salesman. I like the suggestion that the book is about his trials. That would make if of a piece with Eddie Coyle: Bad guys are, in part, regular guys, too. Higgins must have had a great fondness for some of the crooks I presume he met.

August 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the reminder, Lauren. A first impression is that "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" holds up better than "Little Caesar." The former may be frayed a bit around the edges. The latter looks like bad parody to a viewer today, or to me.

One example of a pioneering text that has held up, arguably never been equaled and probably never been bettered: Montaigne's Essays. I conclude that Montaigne was a greater artist than Edward G. Robinson.

August 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, thanks for that extra historical context. I'd forgotten that the novel was published at almost exactly the same time "The Godfather" was released. I'd also agree that humanity is a better word than nobility to describe Higgins' characters.

Perhaps I should make another post on the book, if only to make it clear that my impression of it was mostly favorable and that I think it still holds up. Higgins obviously knew what he wanted to do when he decided to concentrate on low-level hoods and to make them regular guys. My point was just that in one chapter, he tried a little too hard.

August 16, 2009  
Anonymous Bob Cornwell said...

Gee Peter, sometimes I wonder about your sense of humour. Nothing funny, nothing that makes you laugh about Chapter 6 in Friends of Eddie Coyle? The observations about the limited role of religion in day-to-day dealings with the Boston underworld; its untoward effects in some marriage relationships? The television guy who sets out to wreak revenge on the entire pigeon population because one shat on his suit?
Nevertheless you may be right about the overall weakness of the chapter. You might like to know that in an interview by Pierre Bondil at the 1999 Frontignan festival du roman noir, five months before he died, Higgins outlined how The Friends of Eddie Coyle came to be written (as I am sure he did many times before). He had written several novels by this time, estimated at between 11 and 14 according to the circumstances, all unpublished. In the interview he talks about the letters of rejection from reputable publishers. “I would have settled for a disreputable publisher” he says. “I would have settled for a madam running a whore house if she would have published it”
He did, however, get published a short story called “Dillon Explained That He Was Frightened” in The North American Review. A friend read it and asked whether it was part of a novel. “It wasn’t” says Higgins, “until he asked. That night, after we had had dinner I went into my study and put up a piece of paper into the machine and rolled it up and started “Jackie Brown at 26... And that was the beginning of The Friends of Eddie Coyle and without him you wouldn’t know me today. And “Dillon Explained That He Was Frightened” became Chapter 6.”
Unlike later when Higgins would continually redraft and rewrite his books paragraph by paragraph (he talks extensively about his working methods in the interview), the original draft of Eddie Coyle was cut by around 175 words “and that was it.” So it is just possible that Higgins failed to pick up on the kind of variation in tone that you suggest.
As you appear to be in Paris, check into BILIPO and ask to see the January 2000 issue of 813, the magazine of the French crime writer’s association, in which the interview first appeared. I have a transcript of the proceedings (originally in English) if you are interested. Read it and realise just how much of his own personality went into that highly idiosyncratic dialogue.
But I do think you are wrong about “the book’s bad-guys-are-people-too message”. That’s far too simple and not what I believe Higgins is about. There are usually funny moments in Higgins, but influenced (like Elmore Leonard) by Hemingway and John O’Hara, he was never primarily an entertainer (like Elmore Leonard) but a deeply serious writer. For years he resented the description of his work as crime fiction. Later, of course, and aided by his previous careers as journalist, state attorney and finally prosecutor, he applied the techniques honed in the early books, to a much wider variety of social milieu.
In the interview he says that his basic methodology was “to tell the story the same way as I tried a case. My characters are my witnesses... the reader stands in for the jury, and it’s the reader’s decision to render the verdict of whether the caught characters are morally culpable or ethically culpable, and if so which ones are and which one’s aren’t.” Largely eschewing physical description, dialogue for Higgins is there to uncover character and motivation. Not only is that ten page chapter pretty funny in places, we learn a hell of a lot about Dillon.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Unaccustomed though I am to personal attacks, particularly on my sense of humor, thanks for that illuminating response. I had not known that Chapter Six played such a formative role in the novel. I'll concede that the chapter has some amusing lines. In fact, I may break my reply into several pieces, since I'm pressed for time.

Crime fiction has grown to encompass the sorts of stories Higgins told, Higgins' apparent resentment of his work's being called crime fiction notwithstanding. He was a pioneer of crime writing (and, from what you write, possibly of literary snobbery toward crime writing as well) whether he liked it or not.

What I intended to say about Chapter Six was that I could too easily see the pieces being assembled. it reads a bit too much like a writing exercise: "Hmm, not much going on here but a guy sitting and talking. I'd best insert bits of action. Hmm, what will seem both random and Significant Underlining and Echoing at the same time? I know! Religious hucksters! Clever beggars!" Look, it can't be easy to give narrative movement to a static scene, and all I'm saying is that this scene reads too much like an effort to solve a problem rather than like a "natural" piece of writing. That's no great slam on Higgins. Despite his earlier unpublished work, he was a young guy when he wrote Friends. Most first pubished novels by thirty-year-olds probably have rough edges. Chapter Six was one of them.

I have also amended my current post to correct the misapprehension that I am currently in Paris. I took that picture two years ago. I plan to go back, though, and I'll look for that interview. Thanks.

August 18, 2009  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, I'm just checking in here, somewhat belatedly, my Higgins interest having been revived by talk about the film version of 'Cogan's Trade', 'Killing Me Softly', which I unfortunately missed.

'Eddie Coyle' is the only one of his novels that I've read, but I plan to rectify it having just ordered 'The Diggers Game', 'Kennedy For The Defense' and 'The Rat On Fire'
(Criteria for selection was price, of course, and also because I wanted to confine myself as far as practicable to the earlier novels, which, presumably, would be sparer, grittier, and less polished than the later ones)

If your Higgins afficionado, Garbhan, reckons 'Eddie Coyle' is far from his best, then I'm in for a treat
(although we can always disagree)
I got a feeling, though, that those first three books will be the proverbial 'jewels in the crown'

And hopefully the price of 'Cogan's' will drop just in time for me to check out the film version on DVD
(by all accounts the film was a tad over-ambitious in its political sub-texts, but I still think I'll like it)

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I discuss Cogan's Trade briefly in these posts, and I think I'll go see the movie today. I had known that book was being made into a movie and that the movie's setting was, for some reason, New Orleans, but I had not known that the title was changed as well. (It's Killing Them Softly here.) So I might have missed it if not for your comment. Thanks.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I'd seen a reference to the Roberta Flack hit in the Irish Times review, so I suppose an understandable slip on the title
(they didn't do an alternate Irish version)
Its odd that it apparently screened here three months ago, but you're only getting to see it now

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I don't know how long it's been in release here.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

It was actually held back for US release until recently
Probably because of the Presidential Elections.

The director made one of the finest Westerns of the past 40 years, also starring Brad Pitt, so I would have liked to see this one on the big screen
(also because of it being a Higgins)
Interesting reading the Wiki piece on Higgins; about his 'day job(s)'
And the number of novels he wrote prior to 'Eddie Coyle'

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I just got back from seeing the movie, which I quite enjoyed. Now I may seek out "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

I can see where the movie might have been held out of release until after the presidential election, especially since an uncritical observer might find the constant news broadcasts in the background especially critical of Barack Obama. One knows, after all, which party is said to have the most friends in Hollywood.

The poolitical stuff wasn't terribly obtrusive, but it wasn't especially necessary, either. But I don't subtlety goes over well these days. And yes, I mean "Money" and "Heroin" on the soundtrack.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

The criticism of the film seemed to focus on what the reviewers perceived as overly obtrusive and unnecessary political commentary, Peter.
Of course that criticism might be influenced by their politics
(Off-topic, I'm looking forward to Kathryn Bigelow's new film, the criticism of which also seems to be politically-motivated).

And don't be put off by the length of Dominik's 'Jesse James' film: its so well edited that you hardly notice the time passing

December 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The political commentary was certainly unnecessary, as was a speech by Jackie scornful of the sort of political speeched we have been hearing throughout the movie--you know, in case the viewer didn't get the message. But obtrusive? Not for me.

What I'm interested in is whether the commentary has any parallel in Higgins' novel. Except for Brad Pitt's big political speech, the movie's last scene sticks fairly closely to the novel. I must admit that a speech like that rang hollow coming from one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Maybe the filmmakers are proud of the intellectual integrity they showed in filling a movie with commentary that could be interpreted as critical of a Democratic president. Brave souls!

December 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It appears that the Obama speeches indeed have parallels in Higgins' work, and I found them obtrusive, too. I have found that some fans of Higgins (Garbhan Downey, bless his heart, is a notable exception) regard criticism of Higgins as heresy. Then I found that I had written the following, higher up in the thread, in response to someone who attacked by sense of humor because of what I wrote about The Friends of Eddie Coyle:

What I intended to say about Chapter Six was that I could too easily see the pieces being assembled. it reads a bit too much like a writing exercise: "Hmm, not much going on here but a guy sitting and talking. I'd best insert bits of action. Hmm, what will seem both random and Significant Underlining and Echoing at the same time? I know! Religious hucksters! Clever beggars!" Look, it can't be easy to give narrative movement to a static scene, and all I'm saying is that this scene reads too much like an effort to solve a problem rather than like a "natural" piece of writing.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

You'd think that if criminals gripe about politicians, it would be more likely to be the more extreme right-wing Government, which would be perceived to be hard on crime.

I've never (knowingly) associated with criminals, - at least of the 'ordinary decent' (blue-collar) types, - so I can't say whether talk about politics and politicians features prominently in their day-to-day conversations, but I'm sure they must at least be aware of who's governing them.

If the political sub-text was largely an idea of Dominik's, you'd have to consider it a major 'faux pas'

December 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, given the decision to alter the book's historical and physical settings (which may itself be questionable), the moviemakers' job then becomes finding counterparts in 2008 for ideas that found their way into Higgins' books. I don't remember a political undertone to Cogan's Trade, but that does not mean such an undertone was absent.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Half-way through 'The Rat On Fire' which is very funny.
And so what if its 90& dialogue, or whatever?
There's more than one way to skin a cat, or, more appropriately, in this instance, burn a rat.

There's a particularly funny conversation about the two protagonists making a moonlit trip to the city dump, to catch them some rats.

Now I'm thinking that, sub-text or no, 'Killing Me Softly' is a film I really do need to see.

Happy Christmas, Peadar, by the way

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if George V. Higgins' star has been eclipsed because his name is so closely, and exclusively, associated with one book. These comments will be starting point if I ever decide to investigate Higgins in a big way.

And a Happy Christmas to you, too.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I probably could have read it in one stretch if I hadn't decided to watch 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' last night, just to see what all the fuss was about
I hadn't seen, or read, any of that series

I'll post again when I've finished the book, but I've also just received 'Kennedy For The Defense' and I have 'The Digger's Game' on order, and based on the evidence so far I don't think I'll be regretting them.

And, whatever about crime novelists, I get the sense that Higgins' biggest influences could have been James Joyce and/or Samuel Beckett

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't read enough Higgins to guess what his influences might have been. I'm pretty sure I'll take up Higgins again, following Garbhan Downey's recommendations of the Kennedy series.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

How long is your 'to read' list, anyway, Peter?
It must be difficult to keep on top of all of these recommendations people give you on this blog
And put them into some kind of order.

When I was in London earlier this year, I met up with my brother-in-law's sister, who's a massive crime fiction fan, albeit more of the vintage British variety.
But when I told her about Bill James she was very keen, and told me she'd be making enquiries at her local library.
I haven't read any more of his since 'Panicking Ralph', but I like to mix them up, and I'm sure it won't be long before I revert to him.
And, speaking of James, and outrageous comic creations, that's another excuse for you to seek out 'The Rat On Fire', if you're in a James mood.

RTE Radio is playing a wonderful Billie Holiday tribute programme at the moment: perfect post-Christmas dinner, late-night groove music

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Billie Holiday for Christmas. I get it. Very good. I am at work, plugged into Carmina Burana (from the Benediktbeuern manuscript, not the Carl Orff setting. Suitably offbeat Christmas music, I'd say.)

My list is long, and the only thing wrong with good reading is that it interferes good reading. The list is particularly rich at the moment.

Just make sure that your would-be Bill James reader starts with one of those early or middle books. I know of one reader who was turned off by a later book that is of interest principally for a surprise it offers to readers who know the series.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

You need to be in the right mood, - which seems to be always late at night, I think, - to listen to Billie Holiday music.
I don't think I've ever listened to her in the daylight hours.

If you're not yet a fan of her late-period music on the Verve label, I'd highly recommend it. It might have been technically flawed,- in comparison to her CBS recordings with Lester Young, but for me she was at her soulful best.

I know I stressed the importance of starting with early James; I think I mentioned, also, that I didn't care for the 'serial killer' one

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Billie Holiday may not be the music to brush one's teeth to in the morning, but there's never a bad time to listen to her. "He's Funny That Way" is cheerful enough to start one's day.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lolita Man? I'd call that not bad as serial-killer novels go.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

"He's Funny That Way"???
Not quite 'Whistle While You Work', though, is it?

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, but it is a zippier morning pick-me-up than "Strange Fruit."

December 25, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Just finished it: I was just thinking that another possible influence was Damon Runyon, although its been over 30 years since I've read anything by him.

Eventually 'Rat's' comic dialogue, and situations, got somewhat repetitive and it was stretched too thin by the flimsy and overly predictable plot.

But it boasts more than its fair share of zingers, dialogue-wise.

I'll check out 'Kennedy', shortly, to see if there's more substance to it.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, that's an interesting connection to make. Garbhan Downney, who comments above and who seems to be a discerning and intelligent fan of Higgins, also loves Dunyon. He wrote a book of stories called Off Broadway in explicit homage to Runyon's On Broadway.

I've read some Runyon in recent years and posted about him here. I was surprised by such range and ability from a writer I had known only at third hand, mostly through the word Runtonesque.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Maybe next time Garvan's on here, he'll be able to confirm or deny the connection, Peter.
I've just 'googled' him: his book covers look a lot like work of the late Rowel Friers.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, we know the Downey-Higgins and Downey-Runyon connections. We have to trace a Higgins-Runyon connection.

The wonderful cartoon covers on Downey books are by John McCloskey. I feel a particular attachment to two of the books, which I copyedited.

To prove my competence as a proofreader and copyeditor, I now realize that I inadvertently typed Runtonesque above.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I had spotted your little 'faux pas', - both of them, - although I naturally assumed that you'd be more diligent in your professional work, than in a rapid-fire exchange of views with your humble correspondent.

I'd also noticed a reference to your newspaper on Garbhan's website

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No wonder this blog sometimes looks as if its author has the d.t's. It has no copy editor! (And, yes, copy editor, two words, is deliberate. For some reason, newspapers divide the term into two words, and book publishers seem to make it one. Since I have worked in both, I wonder if I ought to compromise and spell it with a hyphen.)

December 26, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I like to use 'hyphens' as often as I can; probably even over-use them!

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am an enthusiastic partisan of suspensive hyphenation.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

suspensive, or suspensory?

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

We call it suspensive here--when we discuss it at all, that is. Is it called suspensory on your side?

December 27, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

The only words beginning with 'suspen' that I can recall ever using are suspense, suspension, and suspenders
And you call them 'garters'

December 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Over here "suspenders" hold up one's pants (we also call them "braces."), and garters hold up one's socks or stockings. I envision ample opportunity for mildly salacious situational jokes.

To be sure we are clear about the matter under discussion, suspensive describes the first two hyphens in this example:

He wore just three styles of shirts: red-, blue-, and green-striped.

December 27, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I don't think I've seen too many examples of suspensive hyphenation; and I'm not too sure its aesthetically pleasing, whatever about its functionality.

December 27, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

37 pages into 'Kennedy For The Defense' and I'm sorely tempted to give up on it; as I have been for at least 10 pages now.

After a couple of promising opening scenes, and colourful characters, he's slowed the plot down to a crawl with a 'domestic' scene which features far too much back-story exposition from the first-person narrator, and far too much mundane dialogue between husband and wife.

Looking at all the gushing quotes on the back cover, I'm wondering did somebody glue the wrong novel between the covers.

Anyway, in keeping with best tradition, your intrepid correspondent will persist with his noble odyssey
(at least for another 20 pages or so)

December 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm unsure suspensive hyphenation is essential to civilization, but I do enjoy an occasional Dionysian outburst of suspensive hyphenation as a counterbalance to my normal Apollonian punctuation.

December 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, maybe that novel has also not dated well. But I must admit that your criticism makes me curious about the novel.

December 27, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

"I must admit that your criticism makes me curious about the novel."

If pushed, I might be inclined to the view that 'Kennedy' best represents his 'mature' style, and that I'll come to prefer his earlier, rawer, novels, like 'Rat', but I'm nothing if not fairminded, and its not unkown for me to be premature in my conclusions

December 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, there's no accounting for taste. Still, if you're not a Kennedy fan, maybe I'll look for Imposters.

December 27, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, I'd like your professional opinion, on a couple of points

1). 'All tolled', or 'all told'?
I'd never even considered the former as a spelling, although I can see the sense of it, in certain contexts.

2). Is it part of your duty as a copy editor to break an article down into appropriate size paragraphs, irrespective of the writer's wishes, or preferred style.
And, if so, and there are conflicting opinions, whose decision is final?

My latest gripe with 'Kennedy': Chapter 6; the first five pages, - all description, - could have done with serious 'paragraph-surgery', quite apart from being cut down to size.
It just doesn't flow well. Which is in sharp contrast to the wonderful rhythms of the dialogue in 'Rat'

I think you may have hit the nail on the head in your comments on the dialogue-intensive 'Eddie Coyle': it may have been because Higgins just wasn't very good at writing descriptive prose.
Dashiell Hammett should have given him a serious talking to: "more is too much"

December 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

1). 'All tolled', or 'all told'?
I'd never even considered the former as a spelling, although I can see the sense of it, in certain contexts.


"All tolled" might make a useful and creative coinage, but the term is "all told."

2). Is it part of your duty as a copy editor to break an article down into appropriate size paragraphs, irrespective of the writer's wishes, or preferred style.
And, if so, and there are conflicting opinions, whose decision is final?


That's a difficult question. Since the duties of assigning editors--the editors who assign the stories and work directly with reporters before the stories ever get to the copy desks--have never been satisfactorily established, a copy editor's job is to do what no one else feels like doing. The notion that writers and their editors should be capable of elegant, concise, coherent prose has not come up once in the twenty-three years I have been in my current job.

So, given that I've read "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" and "Cogan's Trade," what would you suggest I read next when I pick up Higgins again?

December 28, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I've since progressed to page 83, and I'm quite certain that even if it improves substantially in the remaining 100 or so pages, the verdict will be an unequivocal thumbs down.

Among the flaws I've discovered to date:
1). Sidetracking from the plot, -if indeed there is going to be one plot thread, - to describe in considerable detail his office, his type of client, his neighbours,...yadda, yadda, yadda.
We're talking 10 pages here, beginning at page 42 .

2). Introducing a whole rash of minor characters,-intermittently throughout the text,- and providing detailed backstories, including dialogue, of how he met them

3). Providing too much detail of the workings of the law-court's: the writer's 'day job'.

4). Extended conversations with and about his wife and daughter which add little to their characterisations or to plot development

5). The aforementioned paragraph problem

6). Etc, Etc, Etc.

'Rat On Fire' s biggest problem was you could fit the plot on the back of a postage stamp but the characters were quite well-developed through their own words and, for the most part the dialogue had a great flow and rhythm to it
As well as being, for the most part, very funny.

I suspect Higgins probably lost the run of himself: he should have kept the dialogue and worked at developing his plots. Instead he ditched the dialogue and strove for more artistic prose.

I think you should stick to the early novels
I'm expecting 'The Digger's Game' in the post any day now, and will probably read it fairly quickly
It was his second novel.
Even if the plot is of the 55c stamp variety, I'm confident I'll enjoy it and it won't irritate me the way 'Kennedy' has

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the many crime writers who worship at the altar of Higgins do so because of his dialogue. Elmore Leonard, for one, has cited him as important and, I think, as an influence.

Have you read America's own Charlie Stella? I've read seven of his eight novels, and I've enjoyed all seven greatly. I've written about him a few times here, and I think he's in the general Leonard/Higgins vein: He pays careful and amusing attention to how his characters, high, middle, and low, really talk and really live. He fills the space between plot points as well as any crime writer I can think of.

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He's one of the "Eight crime writers worth tracking down" whom I write about in my newspaper last week.

December 28, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I'll definitely check out Charlie Stella.
I'd never heard of him. I wonder has the Dublin library system?

I think Leonard and the other crime writers who cite Higgins as an influence probably do so because of his early novels.

I wonder would I be as critical of 'Eddie Coyle' as you if I were to read it again now?
I loved Mitchum's performance in the film, which is one of his two best, and he had good support, notably from Richard Jordan and Peter Boyle.
And I loved the bleak chilly autumnal look of the film; which might be another way of saying that was more character study, by way of dialogue, than it was great plot. And that I might have loved the book more for how it confirmed what I loved about the film, than from its inherent greatness.

When artists are good at an aspect of their art, they should never ditch it when aspiring to something greater.
I didn't want The Ramones to start writing 'Bohemian Rhapsody': I was happy as long as they kept churning out those 'One Chew Three Four' thrash bubblegum punk songs.
I think Higgins lost his edge when he ditched that street dialogue-rant and got 'serious'

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd be surprised if Charlie Stella turned up in the Dublin libraries. Let me know if he does.

The bleak autumnal look was very much a part of the novel, particularly in a scene that I had in mind when I criticized the book. Perhaps the movie improved on the novel, since film is a medium to which looks come easily.

Hmm, you may have cringed when Phil Spector and the Ramones worked together

December 28, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I think Da Bruddas and Big Phil didn't see eye to eye.
But they made some good music.
One of my favourite Ramones tracks is 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend', which is classic early 60s boy/girl pop, which Phil was weaned on.

No Charlie Stella; they do have a Charles Stella with a novel set in the Vietnam War theatre

With the release of the new Quentin Tarantino film, which sounds like one to avoid, I wonder did Tarantino ever consider filming one of those early Higgins novels; probably too late now, but I think they'd be made for each other

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Phil Spector bragged about making art, and he made magnificent pop music, but it was all three- and four-chord stuff, so he was a good match for the Ramones.

I'm on record as being a Tarantino skeptic, but I'll keep your suggestion in mind if take up Higgins again. Give the recent film of Cogan's Trade, it may not be too late for Tarantino adaptation of Higgins, though the young genius has said his current movie might be his last, I think.

December 28, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I suppose Phil Spector could be said to be the music equivalent of crime writing.
He could make great 'art' out of 'base' pop music, just as the best crime writers can do with their materials.
Somebody should write a crime novel with 'River Deep, Mountain High' for a title: proper respect!

I hated Tarantino's 'Inglorious Basterds': too much about homage, and movie references.
'Reservoir Dogs' will probably always be his greatest legacy, but 'Jackie Brown' is the best filmed Leonard, and both parts of 'Kill Bill' are perfect in their own way.
'Kill Bill, Part 2' probably his most unfairly underrated film, and a great favourite.

I was weaned on 70s crime tv, and blaxploitation movies, but I'm wallowing in my 'Cannon' tv box-sets right now: better than any blaxploitation film QT could name

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tarantino and the Coen brothers are often said to be too much about homage and movie references.

"Kill Bill" is impressive evidence that an American moviemaker of European descent can make a credible Hong Kong-style martial-arts movie that looks good. I that enough? I don't know. I should see "Jackie Brown" now that I've been reading some Elmore Leonard.

December 28, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I think I've told you about the 'Babycart' and 'Zatoichi' series of Japanese samurai films, which I first caught up with a year or two back; they elevate pulp movie-making to 'high art'.
Glorious stuff
QT knows he'd never top them

But 'Kill Bill, 2" transcends its genre influences: its almost elegiac in parts

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've seen one of the Babycart movies and several of the Zatoichis, so maybe I should overlook Tarantino's overweening self-regard and watch "Kill Bill2."

December 28, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I should see "Jackie Brown" now that I've been reading some Elmore Leonard."
I devoured Elmore Leonard during the late 80s, but I think the quality tapered off in the early 90s, when his novels seemed to become too formulaic

I think my next author 'project' will be Ruth Rendell: her 'Talking To Strange Men' impressed me in its ingenuity, and meticulous craftmanship, even if the plot was ludicrously preposterous.

I'm looking forward to eventually reading 'The Bridesmaid', which the elderly Claude Chabrol made into a fine, blackly comic thriller, but first up is 'A Dark Adapted Lie', which she wrote under her Barbara Vine pen-name.
Once I become more acquainted with her, it will be interesting to compare and contrast with Patricia Highsmith

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ruth Rendell is probably a worthwhile project. I've read only The Veiled One, and that sort of psychological crime story is not my cup of tea--which is why I respected the book's virtuoso opening chapter all the more.

December 28, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I'm just looking at the snatches of reviews, and 'blurb', on the back cover of 'The Bridesmaid': there's no suggestion that the novel is as blackly comic as Chabrol's film version.

The Sunday Times reviewer quoted described it as her best book; although that was then (1989)

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember The Veiled One as dark but not comic, but it has been some time since I read it. I think I mentioned it in passing in this blog's first post, in 2006.

December 28, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Apparently her Inspector Wexford books, of which 'The Veiled One' is one, are not as strong as her 'non-Wexfords'.
I note that a number of reviewers compared 'The Bridesmaid' to the work of Patricia Highsmith.

If I haven't already recommended the latter's 'Edith's Diary' to you, take this ever-present in my all-time Top 10 of crime novels, as being worthy of the highest commendation.

btw, where did they get those numbers for your verifications?
From house numbers in Philly?

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know where the numbers come from. I once saw some that I thought, for some reason, must come from Paris.

I'm not sure I'd heard of "Edith's Diary." Thanks for the recommendation.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Just read 'The Digger's Game', from 1973.
Its certainly the best of the three that I've read over the course of the past couple of weeks, although I eventually gave up on 'Kennedy For The Defense', about 90 pages in
So sue me!

This has a considerably more complete and cohesive plot than 'The Rat on Fire', and its better constructed and, for the most part all elements are neatly tied up.

The dialogue didn't have as many 'laugh-out-loud' zingers as 'Rat', though, and I thought there were occasional inconsistencies in a character's style of speaking, which perhaps reflected on the calibre of editing

Some of the conversations, also, tested my patience, in the manner of the pub bore who goes all around the houses, about 20 times, before he gets to the point of his story/the punch-line, although then, on each occasion, the tone of the conversation would suddenly change tack, and the scene would end, satisfactorily.


He's quite poor on scene setting, and too many of his descriptive narrative is too literal, and often very mundane, but there was one particularly long-drawn out description which had a very funny resolution.

If he was an influence on Elmore Leonard, Leonard certainly surpassed him, for discipline of his narrative, structure, and pacing.
Although Chester Himes topped both, for me

I'm even more convinced now that Damon Runyon was a major influence; if you are a Runyon fan it might be worth a read for the added grit.

January 07, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

...I forgot to say that that long-drawn out description with the kick in the tail reminded me both of characters, and a scene, from a Tarantino film, and I'm quite convinced he nicked the idea from this Higgins book
I know he was a big Leonard fan, but I suspect he was a Higgins fan, also

January 07, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Higgins died pretty young, published lots of books, and, I think, had previously written many unpublished ones. I think he also maintained his legal career for at least part of the time he was a writer.

Perhaps this means his output was like that of the pulp writers. Perhaps some of what might been experiments for a more leisurely writer made it into print for Higgins.

I've read some of Elmore Leonard's Western stories from before the time Higgins would have influenced him. The man could, as you say, write before he'd ever have heard of Higgins.

January 08, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tarantino has filmed at least one Elmore Leonard novel, so it makes sense that some Higgins influence would likely have seeped through.

January 08, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Too much of Higgins descriptive prose smacked of dry legalese.
Perhaps he could never quite separate his two careers

January 08, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll have to let more experienced Higginsites weigh in on that question. And I'll certainly consult this discussion before I pick up Higgins again.

January 08, 2013  

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