BY MARTIN KICH
Higgins, George V. The Friends of Eddie Coyle. New York: Knopf, 1972.
In 1985, the Book Marketing Council selected The Friends of Eddie Coyle as one of the top twenty postwar American novels. Higgins’ debut effort, the novel has been translated into Danish, Finnish, Flemish, French, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, and Turkish. It was adapted to a highly acclaimed film starring Robert Mitchum in one of the defining performances of his long and accomplished career. Higgins himself would subsequently produce more than two dozen novels and a half-dozen books of nonfiction.
Before achieving success as a novelist, Higgins had extensive legal experience, both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney. This experience is apparent in his psychological understanding of his characters’ behavior, of their motives and their responses to changing circumstances. The intimacy in Higgins’ depiction of his characters is enhanced by his narrative reliance on extensive dialogue, by his insistence that his characters speak as much as possible for themselves and that narrative commentary be kept to a minimum. This choice and Higgins’ excellent ear for the nuances of voice lend a tremendous credibility to his storytelling.
In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Higgins depicts the underworld not from the perspectives of the mob kingpins but from that of the small-time criminals who survive by their wits and their tenuous connections to more ruthlessly ambitious criminals. Although Eddie Coyle is typical among Higgins’ protagonists in having somewhat modest material ambitions, the stakes in his criminal dealings are every bit as high as those of more high-profile crooks. A mistake—even a mistaken confidence or loyalty—can be suddenly fatal.
Highsmith, Patricia. Strangers on a Train. New York: Harper, 1950.
Patricia Highsmith is known for her acute insights into the psychological states of her characters. Indeed, although the plots of her novels typically depend on chance meetings that then have dramatic consequences for the characters involved, most of the subsequent suspense in the narratives is character- rather than plot-driven. Highsmith has demonstrated a great sensitivity to the nuances of psychological disturbance and the difficulties that more balanced characters have in understanding and then responding to such disturbance. In Highsmith’s novels, there is a gradual funneling of focus, until the psychological crisis of the antagonist and the protagonist’s increasing sense of the danger it poses become two aspects of the same perspective on events. Both characters ultimately understand each other with a terrible clarity and yet, paradoxically, regard each other with a fundamental, if very strained sympathy. At the same time, the reader comes to understand the manifold ironies in their almost complementary relationship.
In part because of Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed film adaptation, Highsmith’s debut, Strangers on a Train, remains one of her best-known novels. Guy Haines and Richard Bruno meet on a train and fall into a surprisingly easy and increasingly personal conversation. Haines, a successful young architect, is unhappily married and discloses that he would very much like to be rid of his wife. Sympathetically, Bruno reveals that his father has continued to exert an oppressive influence over his life. Then Bruno makes a leap that takes Haines entirely by surprise. Bruno suggests that they make a pact to eliminate each other’s “problems.” He reasons that since they have no connection other than this chance meeting on a train, the authorities will be stymied in their investigations of the murders and will never be able to link them. Haines rejects the proposal, but when his wife later turns up murdered, he recognizes that Bruno is not someone who takes no for an answer.
Previous Posts in This Series:
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 1-2: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-1-2/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 3-4: https://academeblog.org/2015/07/02/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-3-4/
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 5-6: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/07/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-5-6/
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 7-8: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/11/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-7-8/
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 9-10: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/18/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-9-10/
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 11-12: https://academeblog.org/2015/09/19/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-11-12/
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 13-14: https://academeblog.org/2015/11/15/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-13-14/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 15-16: https://academeblog.org/2016/01/09/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-15-16/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 17-18: https://academeblog.org/2016/04/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-17-18/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 19-20: https://academeblog.org/2016/05/20/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-19-20/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 21-22: https://academeblog.org/2016/08/17/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-21-22/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 23-24: https://academeblog.org/2016/08/20/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-23-24/
The final post in each series is followed by links to all of the previous posts in that series.
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/
America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/02/13370/