RARA-AVIS: Higgins bio/appreciation

Thu, 11 Nov 1999 15:14:22 -0400

< http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/tim/99/11/09/timobiobi02002.ht ml?999>

Chronicler of small-time mobsters: Higgins on a visit to London in 1985


George V. Higgins, novelist, was found dead at his home in Milton, Massachusetts, on November 6 aged 59. He was born on November 13, 1939.

Although he published more than 25 books in as many years from the early 1970s onwards, his debut novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972), is always to the fore when the work of George V. Higgins is discussed. With its dialogue forged from the speech of the small-town gangsters of Massachusetts, Eddie Coyle and its successors set the pattern for such crime writers as Elmore Leonard, aiming to hold the reader's attention not so much with plot and incident as through the interest inherent in the workings of the criminal mind.

Higgins had unrivalled first-hand experience of the world he took as his literary milieu. For 17 years he practised criminal law in Massachusetts, serving as a federal prosecutor for several of them. Indeed, though his earnings from writing had completely emancipated him from the need to appear at the Bar again, he liked to say that if a really interesting case came up, he would like to take it on.

Although he lived and worked for most of his life in a small corner of one of America's smallest states, and in his writings eschewed the glamorous settings favoured by some of his crimewriting peers, George Vincent Higgins had led a far from sheltered life. Born in Brockton, Massachusetts, he went to school in nearby Rockland from where he entered Boston College. At his parents' insistence he embarked on the study of engineering, but soon switched to English, graduating in 1961 and going on to Stanford where he took a master's degree.

With this education under his belt he took work as a truck driver, learning at the same time "to swear between syllables". He next went as a reporter to the Providence, Rhode Island, Journal and Evening Bulletin and from there to the Associated Press bureau at Springfield, Massachusetts. It was there, covering trials for AP, that he first ran up against the small-time crooks of the type who people his novels.

Some of the inept performances he witnessed from both Bar and Bench persuaded Higgins that he might do very much better himself, and in 1963 he returned to Boston College to read law. Qualifying in 1967, he was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar and was soon involved in cases for the Massachusetts Attorney-General's office in Boston, rising to become the state's assistant attorney-general. In a period of bitter rivalry between Irish and Italian Mafia gangs in the city, he not only built up a formidable reputation, but was also garnering a store of notes for future novels. From 1970 to 1973 he was a federal prosecutor in Boston.

Higgins had started writing in 1961 a series of high-minded literary novels containing "long, Faulknerian sentences that even I could not understand". No one wanted to publish them so, realising the futility of this, he began to quarry his personal experience for literary purposes.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was an instant success. Higgins's determination to let his characters tell their own stories, to impart their own motives to the reader and, as it were, run the novel themselves, was something new in crime fiction. Eddie Coyle actually did
- as some of its successors did not - have a taut plot, but that was not its great strength. Its success came from the sense of its being embedded in the reality of the streets. It was made into a film in 1973, with Robert Mitchum playing Coyle, an ageing hood who has turned police informer, and is the target of his former associates.

The Digger's Game (1973) and Cogan's Trade (1974), set in the same background, followed Eddie Coyle on to the bestseller lists but did not make the transition to celluloid. Higgins's close interest in the legal side of the Watergate case against President Nixon and his associates led to two books: the novel A City on a Hill and a non-fiction study, The Friends of Richard Nixon (both 1975).

It was a feature of Higgins's books that the interest lay not so much in the solution of crime, but in the means by which the law pursues the criminal. In real life Higgins had revelled in this and once described the work of the prosecuting attorney as being "the last officially-sponsored blood sport".

Perhaps this close association with the processes of the law had some drawbacks. There were those among ordinary readers who found his legal mazes difficult to negotiate. And Higgins's touch was not quite so sure when he strayed from his Boston background to the Washington political underworld. Although he continued prolific - his last novel, The Agent appeared last April - he never again quite matched the runaway success of Eddie Coyle.

Higgins was apt to be nostalgic for his days as a federal prosecutor and the thrill of taking on the big mobs. "In matters of crime," he said in an interview earlier this year, "America is definitely in a lull. It's the twilight of the gangsters. The feds nailed most of the bosses and the chances are that those guys will never see the sunshine again outside the exercise yard." Latterly he divided his time between his books and teaching creative writing at Boston University.

George Higgins is survived by his wife Loretta and by the son and daughter of a previous marriage which was dissolved. His first wife Betty died in 1986.

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