The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a novel Elmore Leonard recommends in interviews—he did recently in one with The Wall Street Journal—and he wrote the introduction, explaining that “What I learned from George Higgins was to relax, not be so rigid in trying to make the prose sound like writing, to be more aware of the rhythms of coarse speech and the use of obscenities.” Not only did he learn, but he surpassed his master: The Friends of Eddie Coyle is not an outright bad book. What I learned from it is that you can show too much through dialog. It accomplished something new in its genre, a feat very few novels—including self-consciously literary ones—do. But it reads like a movie—dialog predominates to such a degree that I could barely track where the characters are, or why they are there, or what they are doing. At the same time, Eddie’s “friends” are so slimy and foolish that I cannot care for them and their fast talking. If anything goes on in their heads besides lust for money, it’s not evident.
Guilty of all the alleged sins I defended in The Prisoner of Convention, The Friends of Eddie Coyle would probably make Myers self-immolate. If he thinks Leonard’s heroes are amoral verging on immoral, then the ones in Higgins’ books are simply animals. The Friends of Eddie Coyle also shows that at some level Myers is right: I could not care about Coyle or his friends in part because all of them are so bad, and not only bad but vain and petty. Richard III and Othello at least had contrasts with the villains even if they fell for the villains’ schemes, but Coyle doesn’t even have that. Eddie, Jackie Brown, Dillon, and the rest of them are unredeemed by any glimmer of humanity’s positive traits. Leonard’s have some honor or dignity, even that of a thief. Few if any of Leonard’s protagonists, for example, kill without provocation, and he raises more moral questions through his work than Myers seems to realize.
As with the work some nineteenth-century authors, The Friends of Eddie Coyle appears significant more for its influence than for itself. If you’ve read Elmore Leonard you’ve read Coyle but better; if you’ve seen Homicide: Life on the Streets or any of the innumerable gritty cop shows on T.V. or in theaters you’ve heard his characters’ voices. They are influenced by film, and, as one says, “It’s like you’re in a movie, and the other guy’s in the movie with you, but he knows you’re both in a movie, and what comes next. And you don’t. I get the feeling, all the time, he’s playing me” (emphasis in the original) (85). Maybe some of Higgins’ other books are better—Elmore Leonard improved with age—so he might too. But I’m not going to find out.