Friday, January 23, 2015

Why George V. Higgins but not Ross Thomas?

Crime writers and readers revere George V. Higgins for The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but we don’t talk much about Ross Thomas these days. This puzzles me, since Thomas was better than Higgins at some of the things Higgins is celebrated for: gritty looks at men at work, including criminals, and razor-sharp dialogue cleverly contrived to convey character and create the illusion that this is how people really speak.

 I base these remarks on Thomas' Missionary Stew, which appeared in 1983, thirteen years after The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and that's where the caveat comes in. Though an experienced novelist by the time ... Eddie Coyle appeared, could Thomas have been influenced by the younger writer, the way the similarly older, more experienced Elmore Leonard was?

I ask because the three previous Thomas novels I had read (Cast a Yellow Shadow, The Seersucker Whipsaw, and The Fools in Town Are on Our Side) either predate The Friends of Eddie Coyle or appeared the same year, and I don't remember those books bringing Higgins or Leonard to mind.

Though I don't get the esteem in which Higgins was held, I have no desire to knock him. But I would like to see a revival of interest in Thomas, and not just because he wrote with such wit about politics.
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A wise commenter on my skeptical 2009 post about Eddie Coyle wrote: "I think it's comparatively rare for pioneering texts to stand up in the long term." Maybe Higgins is an example of that pioneer phenomenon, surpassed by his followers. I should like the guy, because I enjoy authors who look up to him and whose works is often compared to his: Bill James, Garbhan Downey, Dana King, Charlie Stella.

I'd hate to think that readers and critics might be scared off by Thomas because he wrote about politics. Don't be; he makes his subject real and funny/
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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32 Comments:

Blogger Charlieopera said...

Okay, I take the challenge ... I'm gonna read this guy. I'm going in prejudiced about Higgins, though ... in life we probably wouldn't have liked each other much (Higgins and myself). He was a haughty SOB and pretty self-righteous (probably from his years as an assistant DA), but he later became a defense counsel (did he continue to be self-righteous?) ... no idea, but the SOB could write his ass off (at least the crime stuff). Like Ellroy (for me), there's some of Higgins work I just can't bite into (way too much dialogue), especially in his political novels. I know he hated being called a crime writer, but for me his best work was his first three novels (each as good as the first, for which he's best known, Eddie Coyle). Being compared to him is way more than kind. I'm not in his league, but I still can't get over just how magnificent those first 3 books of his are, yet I totally understand his attempts to move in other directions. Sometimes it just gets old (boring) to compose the same novels, I think. Or maybe we kid ourselves thinking we can. I've been fighting the attempts at other stuff for 4 years now (and enjoying every minute of it, make no mistake). I'm taking a break from trying to fix a 4 year crime project right now, in fact (writing this) ... anyway, I'm gonna read this guy you've mentioned ... he's on my TBR pile (will order after posting this) ... okay, happy now? :)

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

I've read all of Ross Thomas' novels, a lot of them twice, and I think he's one of the best crime writers of the 20th century. He's right up there in my top 10. Or would be if I ever made a top 10 list.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger R. T. said...

Well, shame on me! I do not think I have ever heard of Ross Thomas. And I have merely glanced at the name "Higgins" without giving any thought to reading anything by him. I guess I have neglected what I could call the testosterone-driven crime novels. Is that a fair characterization?

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

I've read Ross Thomas and enjoyed his novels, but I'm a huge admirer of George V. Higgins.

In my view, his first novel, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," which took him years to write, is a crime masterpiece.

His follow up books "The Digger's Game" and "Cogan's Trade" are also fine crime novels.

I am not so big on his political novels or his Jerry Kennedy defense attorney novels, but I was pleased when he returned to the street level crime scene with his "A Rat on Fire."

His last novel, "At End of Day," was a fine fictional account of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger and an undercover FBI. Very good stuff.

I recall an interview where Higgins said that when he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Massachusetts he often listened to the wiretap tapes of wiseguys and other criminals and that is how he came to write such authentic dialogue.

I thought they made a very good film of "The Friends of Eddie" with Robert Mitchum as Coyle and Peter Boyle as the bartender/hit man.

I read that Peter Yates, a Brit who directed TV shows like "Danger Man" (called Secret Agent in the U.S.), has originally cast Mitchum as the hit man and Boyle as Coyle, but he switched the roles on the set. Good move, I thought.

So if one loves realistic and well-written crime novels, then "The Friends of Eddie" should be on your book shelve.

Paul

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Paul Davis said...


You can read my column on George V. Higgins and Boston crime stories via the below link:

http://www.pauldavisoncrime.com/2010/05/on-crime-thrillers-column-boston-noir.html

No test, no charge (Ha).

Paul

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

Thanks for recommending yet another writer in Thomas that I now have to read. Jeez, Peter, as if my To Read pile is not high enough already!

As Higgins was a Boston College alum and former editor of Stylus (BC's lit/arts rag) as was I, I am biased (Go Eagles!) but I think a few of his novels are masterpieces. He wrote too much, however, and a lot of it was crap. He was the acceptable face of crime writing for the lit establishment in a time when crime writing was not held in the same esteem as it is now, so much of that crap is over-lauded. (This is similar to Ellroy now. When he and Higgins are good, they are very, very good but when they are bad...) Still, Trust is one of the finest novels in any genre that I have read. It is the perfect melding of Higgins' dialogue as character study with crime novel plotting but there is something profound about it that transcends...well, something. A great book.

Eddie Coyle is a very good book, IMO, but has its flaws. Though I was not aware of that dastardly Chapter 6 until I read the comments section of your 2009 post on the book. What a great comment thread. Interesting to learn that the novel itself sprang from that chapter.

As for experimental or pioneering works not standing up, I'll have to think about it. Ulysses does but Finnegan's Wake certainly doesn't, just off the top of my head.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Charlie, this Higgins thing is an abiding mystery with me. I love the writers who worship him, but his stuff just doesn't grab me. I would never call Eddie Coyle a bad book. At most I'd say some of its features have dated badly, the stream-of-consciousness observation of Boston Common, for instance.

Your "way too much dialogue" criticism is of the highest interest. Critics have marveled at how Elmore Leonard could build scenes almost entirely of dialogue, especially in Get Shorty, if I recall correctly. Well, I read those scenes, and I am in awe of the writing chops it takes to create a scene like that, and then I tire of it very quickly. The awesome technique may blind some critics to the larger question of what that technique contributes to the story.

This is only the fourth novel of Ross Thomas; that I've read, so I can't say which is considered is the best. But find the best, and I think you'll like him.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger R. T. said...

When someone complains about too much dialogue, I suspect that person does not much care for reading plays. On the other side of the spectrum, anyone who writes a novel without dialogue might be making a big mistake. However, there are plays without words. But, of course, to talk about novels and plays in the same breath would be like comparing apples and oranges -- different but equally palatable offerings.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, I think Ross Thomas may make it onto my list if I read a few more of his books. It's not as if he was neglected, either. He won two Edgars and sold very well for quite a long time, I think. But I don't think I have ever seen him mentioned along with Higgins---odd, I suggest, since he could do what Higgins did and at least as well.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure he's neglected now (Otto Penzler has published a bunch of his novels), but his name does not come up often. Could this be due to readers' disillusion with politics?

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I did not set out to knock Eddie Coyle, though I don't like the book as well as some people do. But Ross Thomas deserves to be admired fir some of the same things that Higgins does.

I recently read a disparaging remark about the movie version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. That divergence of opinion makes me especially eager to see the movie.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Paul. Here’s a link to your column in handy one-click form.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kevin, many thanks. It had not occurred to me that the esteem in which Higgins is held may be due in part to his position in the literary, critical, and social history of the crime novel.

Do your Boston roots similarly predispose you to like Robert B. Parker?

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I do enjoy reading plays occasionally, but one expects dialogue there; one does not generally read a play for the amusing stage directions or character descriptions either, with the exception of Troilus and Cressida.

But lengthy stretches of dialogue in a novel can begin to look like showing off for its own sake.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., Ross Thomas was held in high critical and popular esteem for quite some time. If I recall correctly, an introduction to one of the Mysterious Press reissues of one his novels notes how quickly he went from household name to someone in need of revival. And, by God, he deserves to be read, talked about, and enjoyed.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

I think I read all of Parker's novels one summer at the beach when I was about 16. My aunt had them and they all smelled of the sea and flat, spilt Miller Lite. So I have really fond memories of reading them and yet no idea whether they were any good or not. I must go back to him.

I am a big fan of Dennis Lehane, however.

I must try to find that interview with Higgins in the French journal of noir as mentioned in the thread from the older post.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger R. T. said...

Peter, I respect your judgment and opinions so much that I will be immediately off the library -- as soon as it reopens on Monday -- for some Ross Thomas titles. Perhaps you will have converted me into a Thomas fan.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger R. T. said...

And one more thing, Peter et al, if I were to choose only one or two Thomas and Higgins titles, which should be my introductions to their work? (I suspect differing opinions out there.)

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

http://crimealwayspays.blogspot.ie/2011/05/down-these-green-streets-kevin-mccarthy.html

I knew I'd written a piece on Eddie Coyle but couldn't remember where. And then I remembered I could google it. Doh! (Proving that writers don't spend all their time googling themselves...) Here it is, from Declan's blog. A short, tribute type piece on why it's great.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kevin, let me know if you come up with that article. I lived in Boston when Parker was first gaining his reputation, so I read a few of his books. One scene in one of them, in particular stuck with me, but I did not start reading crime fiction in a big way until years later.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., this list of all my posts about Ross Thomas will give you my thoughts on the four of his novels that I’ve read. In addition, his Cold War Swap and Briarpatch won Edgar Awards, the former for best first novel, the latter for best novel. I don’t know what popular and critical opinion says are his best books. I have liked all four I have read.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kevin, here’s a one-click link to the piece you wrote for Declan. I know Declan is a big Elmore Leonard fan, but as near as I can tell from what relatively little I’ve read of Leonard’s work, I prefer the writing that appears less influenced by Higgins.

January 24, 2015  
Anonymous Timothy Hallinan said...

Ross Thomas is permanently on the list of my five favorite thriller/caper authors ever. (Others come and go.) Any book he ever wrote is a doctoral dissertation on character description (I don't actually know anyone who describes men better), and his wit just crackles along beneath the story's surface, popping its head up at the optimum times. He was one of the greatest character namers of all time (Otherguy Overby, anyone) and he was equally at home with grifters, government guys, and borderline crooks, and he never, ever, intruded himself into the story, writing a line that was the kind of clever that reminds the reader that there's a writer in between him/her and the story. I had the misfortune to meet him once, and he wasn't terrifically pleasant, but he'd been drinking kind of hard for a long time at that point, and anyway, who cares if he wasn't a moonbeam in person? I'll take good writing over charm school any day of the week.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tim, you'll see that I mentioned Thomas' "gritty looks at men at work," so I am highly sympathetic to your statement that you know no one who describes men better.

That's a nice assessment of how Thomas' wit worked. I laughed every time Draper Haere said, "I was in a meeting."

I say you have Thomas nailed. I wonder if Thomas is somewhat neglected because he was pigeonholed as a "comic" writer or a "political" writer.

January 24, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

I haven't read either George V. Higgins or Ross Thomas, but I did spend a fair amount of time this afternoon trying to remember what other author with similar name that I get Higgins mixed up with, and why in the world I get Ross Thomas mixed up William Marshall, even though I've read Marshall and not Mr. Thomas.

January 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Because Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas have sat on the Supreme Court, maybe?

Could you have got George V. Higgins mixed up with Dolores Hitchens? Christopher Hitchens? Or Francis X. Bushman, who was no author but whose prominent, odd middle initial reminds me of Higgins?

I would say Higgins is with reading, of only to explore why so many crime writers like him so much. But for now, I'm going to look for more Ross Thomas.

January 25, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

No, I think it was a similarity in the way they were described and esteemed that tangled them in my brain. Probably unrecoverable.

I bet with Ross Thomas and William Marshall it was something about the cover art.

Anyway, I will put both Higgins and Thomas on the very long list of authors to check out.

January 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re the way characters are described, I have never seen Ross Thomas and George V. Higgins invoked together until I did so in this post. I have seen Thomas compared to Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate. and a blurb on my edition of Missionary Stew says that "What Elmore Leonard does for crime in the streets, Ross Thomas does for crime in the suites." That's a little too glib, but it does point to a possible Higgins conection.

Now I'll try to find out who this guy Marshall was.

Incidentally, I have seen lists of Ross Thomas' books group some of them under the rubric "political novels." If that aspect interests you, look for one of the books on that list.

January 25, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

I realized last night that it was Jack Higgins, who is a British author and wrote spy novels and thrillers. Apparently was hugely popular, but like I say, I haven't read him.

January 26, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jack Higgins, whose real name, I have just found out, is Harry Patterson, not to be confused with James Patterson.

January 26, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, I saw that. I am sure they are quite different writers, but they were right next to each other on the shelves and I think had similar kinds of covers.

January 26, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I sometimes confuse the various thriller/mystery writers named O'Connor. And I am pretty sure I have one of Jack Higgins' novels at home. I should look for it, if only to stave off confusion.

January 26, 2015  

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