As a kid, I was never a big fan of crime fiction–I always associated it with my Aunt Doris, smoking Pall Malls and drinking Ballantine Ale while reading Perry Mason potboilers about spurious spinsters and restless redheads.
But in 1972 I came across George V. Higgins and his first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I read something in the Boston papers about a hot new book, and pretty soon, I was driving down to the Caldor’s in Northampton, parting with (I think) $4.95 for a first edition.
I couldn’t believe how good it was. I still can’t, as a matter of fact. Suddenly I couldn’t get enough of crime fiction—as long as it was hard-boiled and as long as it was American. Sorry Aunt Doris, but Higgins put Erle Stanley Gardner in the shithouse.
Higgins, a former federal prosecutor, always bristled when some snotty critic would accuse him of simply transcribing wiretaps. Higgins was offended that someone couldn’t recognize his dialogue as art, which it is, because real gangsters don’t actually talk the way Higgins’ hoods do.
As a newspaper reporter, I’ve since read thousands of pages of Mob conversations, and I have yet to come across a two-time loser saying anything close to, “Hurts like a bastard,” let alone advising a younger plug-ugly, “You should lay off the eggs. They make you fart worse’n beer.”
Higgins took hood-speak and distilled it. He didn’t want to be a lawyer, he wanted to be a novelist, and Eddie Coyle was his one shot at the main chance. He pulled it off.
Eddie Coyle is one of those cases where the cliché is true–the book is indeed better than the movie. And that’s saying a lot, as good as Robert Mitchum is as “Eddie Fingers,” although Mitchum may have picked up a few pointers while dining most evenings during the filming with the two bosses of the Winter Hill gang, Howie Winter and Johnny Martorano.
Like most Higgins’ fans, I loved his next two novels, The Digger’s Game and Cogan’s Trade. But after that he became increasingly prolix, even though he could still occasionally turn out a minor classic like The Rat on Fire, a spot-on rendering of the arson culture in 1970s Boston. I paid him less and less attention, even though for awhile we worked at the same Boston newspaper (he was the lead columnist and I was a young reporter, and our paths never crossed).
But then I got posted to the State House, and I ran into a politician named Billy Bulger, the president of the state Senate. Billy had an ex-con brother named Whitey Bulger, who had taken over the Winter Hill gang. My reporting on Billy’s dodgy dealings–his nickname was “the Corrupt Midget”—quickly skyrocketed me to the top of brother Whitey’s Hit Parade. And since Whitey had already murdered at least 20 people in his rise to the top of the rackets, I took seriously the warnings from cops not to linger in South Boston after nightfall, or before it, for that matter.
When a killer openly threatens to kill you, it concentrates one’s mind wonderfully, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson. And as I studied Whitey, it dawned on me just how much of Whitey’s career paralleled that of Eddie Coyle’s fictional killer, Dillon.
Dillon owned a barroom–in someone else’s name, because he was a felon. Just like Whitey.
Dillon was an informer for the feds. Just like you know who.
He did hits for the Mafia. Again, check.
Whitey had a special, customized car he used only on hits. We didn’t know about that until after he fled, but FNU (First Name Unknown, as the feds say) Dillon was describing it as early as 1972. Like Whitey, Dillon called it “the truck.”
“I have seen the truck,” Dillon tells his G-man handler. “That thing wheels up behind you. . .and I ask you, what’re you going to do now? You’re going to make a good Act of Contrition, is what you’re going to do.”
Re-reading the novel, I even thought I recognized the prototype for Eddie Coyle–a ham-and-egger named Billy O’Brien. He’d been in one of Whitey’s early bank-robbing gangs, got paroled, and was whacked shortly after being lugged by the State Police for a truck hijacking.
Cripes, I thought, Higgins wasn’t just a great dialogue man, he was an oracle. He could predict the future. Anyway, years passed, I didn’t get hit, and in late 1994, Whitey went on the lam, where he remains, a $2 million bounty on his head at age 81. I got my own contract—to write a book about the brothers Bulger, Billy and Whitey.
In the course of my research, I decided to call Higgins to ask him how he had been so amazingly prescient. He was only in his late 50s, but his health was failing. He said he’d never heard of Billy O’Brien, and when I asked about Whitey, he replied:
“I wrote about Dillon before Whitey became Whitey, if you know what I mean.”
I knew what he meant all right. Whitey was a small-timer in 1972. Before hanging up, Higgins gave me his home phone number.
“You should have it,” he said. “You’re in the club.”
What a compliment, even if it wasn’t true. A few weeks later, he was dead, before the publication of his final book, appropriately titled At End of Day. It was about two gangsters who were obviously modeled on Whitey Bulger and his partner, Stevie Flemmi.
Dutifully, I read the book. It wasn’t Eddie Coyle, or even Digger Doherty, but it wasn’t bad. Near the end, the Stevie Flemmi character is listening to the radio—to a talk show, and the host is… Howie Carr.
Higgins had put me into a George V. Higgins novel. Finally, yes, I was in the club.
Don’t miss out on an exclusive excerpt of the Prologue and “Indian War” chapter of Hitman by Howie Carr.
Howie Carr is a columnist for the Boston Herald and a regionally-syndicated radio talk-show host in New England. He is the author of The Brothers Bulger, a New York Times bestseller in 2006-07, and the just-released Hitman (bostonhitman.com). His novel, Hard Knocks, will be published in January, 2012.