Crime fiction suffers from guilt by association with its subject matter; why should you be concerned—your librarian, English professor or snooty friend might ask—with murder and mayhem perpetrated by and among a bunch of low-lifes when you could be consuming the passion of Madam Bovary, the lost weekend of preppie Holden Caulfield, or War and Peace? Edmund Wilson, one of the pre-eminent literary critics of the 20thcentury, gave this attitude its most memorable airing in a 1945 article in The New Yorker whose title—“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd”—condensed it to its essence, like a bouillon cube.
The validity of the charge depends, of course, on the accused. There is plenty of murder in Sophocles and Shakespeare, and nobody complains. There are petty criminals in Dickens and Twain, and detectives in Poe’s short stories. If we were to use crime and disreputable characters as a litmus test, whole shelves of high-school libraries could be swept clean and space made available for additional copies of “How to Improve Your SAT Score.”
Part of the problem is that crime and detective fiction either aims too high—the chivalrous detective who, like Caesar’s wife, keeps himself above reproach at all times—or too low; the Mickey Spillane School of Writing, with cartoonish fist fights and shootouts from which his hero, Mike Hammer, always emerges victorious.
Each successive generation of this sort of writing lays buried beneath its successors, like archaeological strata composed of garbage around the Roman Coliseum—does anybody dig into the past to read Ellery Queen or Rex Stout these days? No, because there’s a new wave of schlock that incorporates contemporary culture, themes and issues into its narrative lying atop. Why bother acquainting yourself with the past when you already know about the present?
Does anybody dig into the past to read Ellery Queen or Rex Stout these days? No, because there’s a new wave of schlock that incorporates contemporary culture, themes and issues into its narrative lying atop.
And yet, there are writers of detective fiction whose names deserve to be mentioned along with the best of their generation; Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle among the English, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett among Americans. Their works survive because they hold our interest in the way that pulp fiction normally does—there’s a puzzle to be solved involving a crime, usually a murder—but they appeal to the reader’s ear and mind over time because their tales are well-told and their stories well-crafted.
To this august group it would not be too rash a judgment to nominate, seventeen years after his death, George V. Higgins, the Boston crime writer who inspired a legion of imitators whose works you can read or see on the screen today.
Like Chandler, the father of the laconic narrator with an unbending moral code, and Hammett, the former Pinkerton’s detective who perfected, if he didn’t invent, the model of the cynical, hard-boiled private eye, Higgins created a style that was a revelation at first, and an artistic tic as his career declined from its peak. Pick up a copy of The Digger’s Game and you won’t encounter anything resembling “It was a dark and stormy night”-type exposition until you’re fifty pages into the book, and Higgins shuts off the authorial scene-painting almost immediately. He built his stories entirely out of dialogue, and not the articulate repartee between Holmes and Watson. His characters were small-time crooks (the Digger in the aforementioned novel steals TVs and furs, for example), the family members who they enmesh in their schemes, and the representatives of the state—cops and prosecutors—whose job it is to put the bad guys behind bars.
Higgins’ star has been in decline since his death, a not surprising turn of events given that the publishing industry has product to push, there are no new novels appearing in time for Christmas from this dead author, and Higgins is no longer around to play the raconteur and multi-purpose wise guy that he became after he achieved success with his first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. That book, subsequently made into a film, received praise from high quarters including Norman Mailer, who memorably said “What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.”
Higgins at the time was “the fuzz” (a lesson in how quickly slang ages), a federal prosecutor, and he had previously been a state prosecutor with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. These are unglamorous, low-paying jobs, but one gets the sense the Higgins’ took them with a sense of calculation. After earning his bachelors’ degree at Boston College he earned a masters in English from Stanford, then a law degree from Boston College Law School. A picture from his undergraduate days shows a slim, affected-looking, pipe-smoking—is “twit” too strong a word?—posing with other members of the college literary magazine. He wanted to be a writer from the start, and my guess is he became fascinated with the contrast between his birthplace in Brockton (home of boxers Rocky Marciano and Marvelous Marvin Hagler) and early life in Rockland, another working class town on Boston’s South Shore, and the wannabe belletristshe encountered in college English classes.
After grad school Higgins became a reporter in Providence, Rhode Island, a mobbed-up city whose recently-deceased mayor—Vincent Albert “Buddy” Cianci, Jr.—ended his second stint in office by going to federal prison on a racketeering charge. After that job and another working for the Associated Press, Higgins probably decided that the wages of journalism were too slim and that he’d better have a more robust source of income if he, like everyone else around him in the newsroom, was banking on making it by writing a novel.
And so the pages of a Higgins’ novels are filled with talk; talk that he heard covering the stories that make it into the headlines every day, talk from victims of crimes and their perpetrators, even talk that he heard when people thought nobody was listening—tapes of wiretaps. If, as the old saying goes, character is who you are when no one’s looking, Higgins had access to a pallet-load of inspiration, and came to know their true character. It was the raw material he mined to write his books.
If, as the old saying goes, character is who you are when no one’s looking, Higgins had access to a pallet-load of inspiration, and came to know their true character. It was the raw material he mined to write his books.
Higgins’ success at the age of thirty-three (he claimed to have written, and thrown away, fourteen prior novels) surely transformed his life. He didn’t have to practice law anymore, but he did, and so he could choose his clients, among them Eldridge Cleaver on the left and G. Gordon Liddy on the right, for publicity’s sake—not to pay the rent.
Boston is a schizophrenic town; on the one hand, it looks down on the rest of the country, and yet, it suffers from a crushing inferiority complex when it comes to New York, which surpassed it as commercial and cultural capital of the East coast long ago. Higgins was simultaneously envied and detested here; he was the local boy who made good—The New York Times and The New Yorker lauded him—and yet he was working class Irish-Catholic, the one ethnic group that can be safely disparaged among polite Boston society.
There is an old Irish saying: If they’re going to call you a horse thief, you might as well steal some, meaning that if people don’t think much of you, you might as well fulfill their expectations. Higgins became a fixture at Locke-Ober, then the third-oldest restaurant in Boston (it opened in 1832) and one that excluded women until the 1970s. Interviews with him were conducted in the dining room, and reporters typically noted that he consumed several martinis over the course of lunch. He liked to talk and he liked to drink, and he probably did a little too much of both for his own good.
Always the wise guy, Higgins began to write a column for the Boston Herald, the more conservative of Boston’s two dailies, and later for the larger, more liberal—and better-paying—Boston Globe. (I know—I’ve written for both.) He was impious and an iconoclast—“politically incorrect” before the term was coined. He was also a bit of a blowhard; in one memorable aside he claimed that neither he nor any of his friends had ever suffered from impotence—surely the one subject on which a man will lie.
I encountered Higgins in the flesh in the late 70’s, when he taught a class at Boston College Law School, where I had followed him twelve years later. The course, in trial practice, was one I was fairly sure I would never use in my career, but as a would-be writer and an admirer of his, I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet a living, breathing novelist.
Higgins set the tone from the first, arriving late with, one suspected, a few drinks in him. He was loud—courtroom loud—and his pedagogy was heavy on anecdotes, light on instruction. He had been a prosecutor, of course, and as a result had numerous court appearances under his belt, and probably not a few jury trials, the acid test of a trial lawyer.
The semester progressed and with it a growing sense among the students that, whatever his reputation as a writer, Higgins wasn’t cut out to be a professor of law. Why he decided to teach the class (and he taught others as well), was a mystery to us; my guess was he liked to tell war stories and get paid for it—who wouldn’t, especially someone who was both a writer and a lawyer, two occupations not known for underdeveloped egos.
One night attendance in class dwindled to a handful; I couldn’t make it because I had to stay late at the firm where I was working. Higgins apparently exploded in the way that only a teacher who feels he’s not appreciated can (I also suspect he’d been drinking again), and imposed a punitive assignment; in addition to the final exam, there would be a paper—a rarity in law school classes. We would have to attend a trial in a Boston criminal court and write a report on it. He didn’t want an academic article, he made clear—he wanted the who, what, when, where and why. Those students who weren’t present also had to write him and explain their absence. I wrote a self-consciously literary effort that I hoped would move himto respond in writing, so I could get his autograph without playing the fawning fan. (He did so, but I have since lost the letter.)
The paper was a nuisance to most in the class—it involved a trip downtown from the bucolic suburb where the law school was located, and would consume the better part of a day that could have been better spent studying, playing Frisbee or drinking beer—but I was eager to submit my writing to a man who’d been compared to Hemingway and James Joyce.
The courtroom was like something, as you might expect, out of a Higgins novel; the judge was white and Irish, the defendant black, the prosecutor world-weary, the public defender enthusiastic, the bailiff and other court employees overweight and lazy, the back benches sprinkled with old men who go to trials to fill their days with cheaper entertainment than the race track. I don’t remember what the verdict was, but I remember writing my paper using spare, unadorned detail, a “Just the facts, ma’am” approach reminiscent of Dragnet’s Jack Webb playing Joe Friday. The temptation to imitate Higgins’ style was strong, but I resisted it—and got an A. (I got a B+ in the course, so I must have blown the final.)
I remembered Higgins’ tantrum over the years as I continued to read his books; he had become a self-absorbed man who had begun, against the advice Knute Rockne gave his Notre Dame football teams, to believe his own press clippings. The all-dialogue style deteriorated into logorrhea; instead of two characters bantering back and forth, soliloquies would run on for pages, larded with an excess of underworld argot and Boston working class wise cracks. When Higgins wrote The Progress of the Seasons, a book on the Red Sox,a decade later, it was more about himself than about baseball.
Still, on the strength of his first three novels, Eddie Coyle, the Digger’s Game and Cogan’s Trade, Higgins deserves to be re-read, and by more than just fans of crime fiction. He did that rarest of things, which most writers can only hope to achieve in their lives: he made it new, as Ezra Pound would put it, and recorded in words the world around him in a way no one else had ever done before.