Killing Them Softly – The Genius of George V. Higgins

Orion crime editor Bill Massey explains why genius dialogue writer George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade is so well suited to film.

The real question prompted by the release of Killing Them Softly, the movie adapted from Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, is not ‘Is it any good?’ but ‘What took you so long?’ 

Higgins’ first novel, The Friends of imgresEddie Coyle, was filmed the year after it was published, in 1973.  Not only was that a great movie (directed by Peter Yates of Bullitt fame and featuring a brilliantly hangdog performance from Robert Mitchum), but it showed  that Higgins’ novels (at least the handful of short, sharp masterpieces on which his reputation rests) were just made to be adapted for the screen. Higgins’ trademark, after all, is dialogue.  Dialogue ‘so authentic it spits’, as Life magazine memorably put it. And the dialogue isn’t really in the novels; the novels are made out of it.

In a typical Higgins novel, mobsters, hitmen, shylocks, thieves and other assorted sleazeballs – along with the cops and lawyers who are pursuing them – sit together in bars and diners and dingy offices in the less salubrious parts of Boston, and talk. Talk in a way that only a lawyer who had himself spent many hours in these same bars and dingy offices listening, could recreate. And out of that talk, almost without you being aware of it, emerge his stories – acutely observed, by turns shocking and hilarious stories of Boston lowlife at its lowest.

And that, in the end, is what makes Higgins such a great writer. No one was better at disguising the artifice of storytelling, hiding it as he did amid the raw and apparently unedited dialogue of his characters. For sure, that technique, especially in his longer novels, led to overindulgence, to a kind of 1001 Nights in a Boston Bar where the telling of stories within stories within stories left you feeling like you’d had one too many.  But at its best, in novels like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Cogan’s Trade, The Rat on Fire and The Digger’s Game, it produced a uniquely naturalistic kind of crime fiction.

Oh yeah, and they’re funny as hell, too.