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Martin F. Nolan

Author George V. Higgins’s linguistic loot

In the Dec. 3 New Yorker, movie critic Anthony Lane asks, “Why haven’t more movies stolen from George V. Higgins? He died in 1999, but his work remains a trove, begging to be raided for linguistic loot.”

In two dozen novels about life in New England, from high to low, mostly low, the unique prose of George Vincent Higgins transformed and elevated the mystery-thriller genre. In 1972, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” made a large and loud impact. “The best crime novel ever written,” Elmore Leonard said, “makes ‘The Maltese Falcon’ read like Nancy Drew.”

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What would George think about his current revival?

He was suspicious of praise, as I discovered one summer day in 1975 on Orange Street in Nantucket. We encountered NBC news anchor John Chancellor, who told George, “I think ‘Cogan’s Trade’ is terrific, full of pizazz.”

The complimented author later grumbled. What did he mean by that? Is it like JFK telling Norman Mailer he liked “The Deer Park?” No, I said. Chancellor’s one of us. He covered cops in Chicago.

Chancellor’s judgment is now confirmed by Brad Pitt, who stars in an adaptation of “Cogan’s Trade,” playing a mob enforcer. “Killing Them Softly” captures the Higgins world of wary thugs ready to betray or be betrayed.

Ash Green, who died in September, was the Knopf editor who slogged through unsolicited manuscripts to discover Higgins. He solicited a blurb from Norman Mailer, who said, “What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.” (This dusty phrase is not heard in Pitt’s movie, updated to 2008 and filmed in New Orleans.)

George was a deputy attorney general and an assistant US attorney, which led some to assume that his ear for dialogue depended on wiretaps. Not so. He was a reporter for the Providence Journal and the Associated Press in Springfield before law school. Long before that, he was a truck driver for “Coca-bleepin’-Cola,” working his way through Boston College, where I first met him. He was then, as always, generous, gregarious, and ready for an argument, good-natured or maybe not.

His writing rested on his belief that “dialogue is character and character is plot.” He was a hit in Britain, where bookshops listed him under general fiction or literature, not mysteries.

Although he disliked being called a mystery writer, Higgins encouraged others, including Dennis Lehane and Robert B. Parker. When Higgins plugged Parker’s first novel, “The Godwulf Manuscript,” he was famous. Parker wasn’t. Many “Spenser” books and and TV shows later, Higgins remained fond of Parker because Bob admired George’s discursive, less gritty novels.

“All that Henry James stuff, I love that,” Bob told George at a splendid lunch (for which Parker paid) back in their salad days at — where else? — Locke-Ober Cafe.

When Hollywood bought “Eddie Coyle,” George, who truly believed that fast cars are interesting, was happy that the director was Peter Yates, who made “Bullitt.” I rooted for someone who would snag an Oscar for the man who was going to play Eddie, Robert Mitchum. While tires squeal often, the movie is still good. The film critic and historian David Thomson summed up Mitchum: “His weary genius rose again as a luckless informant in ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle.’ ’’

It’s past time for The Library of America to reprint the best of Higgins. Bartlett’s Quotations could comb “Eddie Coyle” for his pearls of prose that have quietly entered the language. When a cop asks Eddie what else he can do for him, Coyle replies, “I need a good leaving alone.” A gunseller dismisses a difficult customer, explaining, “This life’s hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.”

When he taught creative writing at Boston University, George urged his students not to wander lonely as a cloud, but to succeed “by sending your stuff out, and refusing to remain a wistful urchin too afraid to beg.”

The author of a dozen unpublished novels before “Coyle” said, “Writing is a hard game. No one asked you to start. No one will notice if you stop.” On that last point, George V. Higgins was wrong about George V. Higgins.

Martin F. Nolan is a former Globe editor and reporter.
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