Val McDermid is the brilliantly accomplished, award-winning author of 26 bestselling crime novels, and the acknowledged queen of the psychological thriller. Her novel The Wire in the Blood formed the basis for the television series of the same name.
Here she talks about how, as an aspiring author, she discovered the work of George V. Higgins.
When I first read George V. Higgins in the early 1980s, it was a revelation. I had literally never read crime fiction like it. I picked up The Friends of Eddie Coyle in the bookshop – long since closed and gone – where I used to browse during my lunch hour. I flicked through it, and even on that superficial first glance, I could see there was a lot of dialogue.
I was intrigued. I was trying to write fiction myself, but my day job was journalism. I was accustomed to using quotes to drive a news story along, but I hadn’t considered that it was possible to work the same magic in a novel. At that point, I was using dialogue quite sparingly. I let the authorial voice carry the story and only let the characters slip into conversation when I couldn’t avoid it.
So I bought the book. I took it back to the office and started reading right away. I was hooked from the first sentence. ‘Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.’ And then it’s straight into direct speech. But this isn’t the formal speech of the traditional English detective novel. What Higgins wrote was just as artificial, but different in one crucial respect – it sounded authentic. You could believe this was how the tough guys and low-life crims who populated his pages actually spoke.
More than that, he used this spare and colloquial dialogue to tell the story. There’s little direct narrative or scene-setting in his books. Instead, you have to concentrate on the shorthand speech that flows back and forth if you want to figure out what’s going on. And what’s going on is generally nasty, brutish and singularly lacking in characters with any redeeming features. These are stories from the underbelly of Boston, a world Higgins had got to know as a prosecuting attorney.
And yet, out of these unlovely people in their unpromising and uncompromising circumstances, Higgins created something remarkable. His early novels in particular reveal lives that most of us are glad we know nothing about at first hand. They take the lid off a section of society that most people despise, much as Dickens did, and they help us to understand those alien lives.
George V. Higgins, like Elmore Leonard, gives a voice to life’s losers – especially the losers who think they’re winners. And he does it through dialogue that sparks and crackles with life. He taught me how to reveal character, to drive plot and to create atmosphere, all through the medium of speech. But more important than that, he gave me pleasure.
He still does.
Val McDermid’s latest novel, The Vanishing Point, is available in paperback and ebook.
George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade was recently adapted as the film Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt, and is available in paperback and ebook from Orion, along with a number of other titles by the author.