Is there a single book that triggered you as a writer, that got you interested in writing crime fiction, as opposed to merely reading it all the time to the detriment of the rest of your life?
For me that book was George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
The book came out in 1972. I read a lot of crime fiction in high school and college, but all the best work seemed (to me, then) to have been done already. Contemporary American crime writers still seemed to be toiling in the long shadow of the hard-boiled writers of the twenties and thirties. I loved Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but their America belonged to a romantic prewar past. I hadn’t discovered Jim Thompson yet—that came in the 1980s with the great Black Lizard reissues of his work. Elmore Leonard’s marvelous crime novels were still in my future.
I read a lot of British crime and suspense writers—Julian Symons, the spy novels of Eric Ambler, the “entertainments” of Graham Greene—but was left pretty cold by the Agatha Christie school of mystery fiction, what have come to be called cozies. Stateside, I felt that Hammett and Chandler had used up and preempted the private eye novel (I know, I know. But this is what I thought at the time).
Someone should write a crime novel about criminals, I thought, and leave the cops and PIs out of it.
Turns out someone had.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle hit me with the force of revelation. It read as if someone had miked every hood in Boston and used the transcripts to generate pure arias of working-class criminal talk.
First, the book was almost all dialogue. There was only minimal description and scene setting. And the voices sounded like real people talking, contemporary American speech.
The lopsided ratio of dialogue to exposition made the book seem almost like an experimental novel, almost a kind of poetry. It cleaned out the inside of my head pretty thoroughly.
There was no one I knew of in contemporary crime fiction that had Higgins’ ear for speech. Until I got my hands on Elmore Leonard’s books a few years later there was nowhere I could go to satisfy the itch for dialogue that felt and sounded like something you would hear actual people say, especially if they were actual people heavily invested in scamming, stealing and killing.
(If you’ve ever tried to read transcripts of people talking, say transcripts of wiretaps, you know that what Higgins has done is to create equivalent structures that are more real than reality, that make you hear the patterns and forms of actual talk in a new way. But, damn, it sure sounded real to me.)
The stuff I ended up writing myself is not much like Higgins, owing a lot more to Donald Westlake and Carl Hiaasen. Elmore Leonard showed how to take an ear for criminal talk like Higgins’ and combine it with an eye for criminal habitat and a mind for realistic criminal plotting, all underlaid with a fundamental, sardonic humor. His novels are a school in how to draw character and appearance by the way people talk.
But it was reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle that cleared all the crap out of my head and kicked it down to the curb, so that everything that came after had a nice clean place to live. It made me think it was both worthwhile and possible to write crime fiction.
I suspect that for many writers the process was more cumulative, that there was no single book that broke them from the past and pointed them in a new direction. But has anyone had a similar experience?
VINNIE’S HEAD St. Martin’s Minotaur March 2007
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