Cogan’s Trade – George V. Higgins


Long before Tarantino wrote movies about tough-guys and low-lifes shooting the shit before work, the go-to guy for top-notch dialogue was George V. Higgins.

Higgins’s plots are slight. The man was a stylist. The plots take a back seat while his characters, low-rent criminals and guys on the fringes of the mob, sit around in bars and diners, offices and hotel rooms, and talk. Boy, do they talk. They talk and then they do violent things to each other and then they talk some more.

I’ve read his Boston Trilogy – Friends of Eddie Coyle, Cogan’s Trade and The Digger’s Game. I haven’t got around to reading any of the others, but apparently you get more of the same.

In Higgins’ books his characters love their cars, they love their women and they love their guns. But they keep their distance from each other. Higgins’s world is full of betrayal and treachery. It’s the kind of world where the guy you go to for help is the guy who’s going to put a bullet in your head. You get to know these people – they’re not nice people but you get to like them – and then they’re gone in a moment of shocking violence.

Cogan’s Trade is pretty typical. The guy who has his name in the title is almost a bit-part player in his own book. Same with Eddie Coyle. Higgins likes all his characters, and he gives them a voice and room to express themselves, and Cogan and Coyle have to wait their turn.

Higgins, who died in 1999, was an interesting guy with clear views about what it means to be a writer. He was a journalist and a lawyer, and Watergate lawyer G. Gordon Liddy was one of his clients.

I still haven’t seen Andrew Dominik’s movie of Cogan’s Trade, released as Killng Them Softly, and starring Brad Pitt as Cogan – anyone seen it, anyone know if it’s any good? It’s on my list, but it’ll be interesting to see how Jackie Cogan’s part is jacked-up on screen. In the books, you get the sense his characters older men, tubby around the middle with too much grease in their hair, protagonists who tend to slip into the crowd. Not like Pitt at all – but then, who is?

What Higgins really likes to do is tell stories within stories. If you like your crime fiction on the stylish end of the spectrum, you could do worse than pick up a George V. Higgins.

What I like: Cogan’s Run and Eddie Coyle and Digger make me think about dialogue. The truth is, all these men sound the same. As writers we’re urged to make all our characters sound different, but boy, what a voice Higgins had. He knew what he was about as a writer and he went for it. Finding out what kind of writer you are, what you do best, is half the battle.

What about you? What kind of a writer are you, what’s the thing that makes you tick when you sit down to write?

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