The Friends of Eddie Coyle (novel)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle, published in 1970, was the debut novel of George V. Higgins, then an Assistant United States Attorney in Boston. The novel is a realistic depiction of the Irish-American underworld in Boston. Its central character is the title character Eddie Coyle, a small-time criminal and informant.
The relentless realism and unglamorous nature of the characters in Eddie Coyle was in sharp contrast to some other gangster novels of the era, particularly Mario Puzo's The Godfather, a more romanticized look at organized crime that later would be adapted into the popular 1972 movie of the same name.
Eddie Coyle is an aging, low-level gunrunner for a crime organization in Boston, Massachusetts. He is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of driving a hijacked truck in New Hampshire. Eddie had been driving the truck for Dillon, a convicted felon and career criminal who is well connected to the syndicate. Coyle has refused to give Dillon up to the authorities in exchange for leniency. Coyle's last chance to avoid a prison term is a sentencing recommendation from ATF Special Agent Dave Foley, who demands that Coyle become an informer in return.
A gang led by Jimmy Scalisi and Artie Van has been pulling off a series of daring day-time bank robberies with pistols supplied by Coyle. One of Coyle's sources for the pistols is a young gun runner, Jackie Brown, who is involved in a deal to supply military submachine guns for other clients. When taking the delivery of the pistols, Coyle finds out about the submachine guns and sets up Jackie for Foley. Jackie is apprehended by Foley and his agents. Coyle feels he has fulfilled his end of the deal, but Foley puts the squeeze on Eddie, demanding more information for his cooperation.
Scalisi's girlfriend tips off the state police about Scalisi and Van's next planned bank robbery. The state police arrest Scalisi and Van's gang in the commission of the robbery. During the arrest, the police shoot and kill a young member of the gang who is well-connected (and possibly related) to the head of a powerful crime family.
That same day, Coyle, who is still desperate to avoid a prison term on the hijacking charge, offers to give Foley the names of the bank robbers. Coyle never gives Foley that names, however, because by the time Coyle and Foley are scheduled to meet the state police have already arrested Scalisi and Van's gang. Coyle never shows for the meet. Foley later learns that Scalisi and Van's gang was arrested that morning.
The head of the crime family mistakenly believes that Coyle informed on Scalisi and Van's gang. The boss, referred to only as "the man," is furious because the state police killed his friend, who was part of the gang, during the arrest. The man hires Dillon to kill Coyle. Dillon takes the contract and murders Coyle.
The novel was an instant success, with Higgins receiving praise from Norman Mailer as "the American writer who is closest to Henry Green. What I can't get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz."
Elmore Leonard said that The Friends of Eddie Coyle was the best crime novel ever written, though Higgins hated being classified as a "crime writer". According to Leonard, “He saw himself as the Charles Dickens of crime in Boston instead of a crime writer. He just understood the human condition and he understood it most vividly in the language and actions among low lives.”
The character Eddie Coyle bore an uncanny resemblance to ex-convict William (Billy) O'Brien, one of James J. "Whitey" Bulger's old bank-robbing associates who had been murdered in 1967, three years before the book's publication. O'Brien, like Coyle, had just been arrested and the newspapers reported that O'Brien's associates were concerned that he might become a turncoat. O'Brien's slaying was never solved, nor was Coyle's.
During the making of the movie in the Boston area, actor Robert Mitchum (who was cast as Eddie Coyle) was interested in meeting the local gangsters as part of his research into the part. Journalist George Kimball, a sportswriter on the Boston Herald at the time, claimed that Mitchum wanted to meet Whitey Bulger and was warned against it by Higgins. Kimball claims that the two did actually socialize, though there is doubt that a meeting between Mitchum and Bulger ever took place. What is known is that cast member Alex Rocco, a native of Somerville, introduced Mitchum to local Irish-American gangsters of his acquaintance, including Howie Winter of the Winter Hill Gang that Bulger belonged to. (Born Alexander Petricone, Jr., Rocco had been a hanger-on of the Winter Hill Gang who had been held for questioning in the murder of Charlestown Mob member Bernie McLaughlin, an incident that had touched off the Boston Irish Gang War of the 1960s. After being released from jail, Petricone left Boston for Los Angeles in 1962, where he became an actor.)
Howie Carr, a newspaper columnist and radio personality who has written extensively on the Boston underworld, reports that Mitchum dined with Winter and Martorano (whom Carr described as a co-leader of the Winter Hill gang), the man who killed the actual probable prototype of Eddie Coyle, on most nights during the filming of the movie. Carr found that the fictional murderer of Coyle, an ex-con named Dillon who set up the failed truck hijacking for which Coyle was to be sent back to prison, bore an uncanny similarity to Whitey Bulger. Dillon owned a bar through a front and was a freelance contract killer. The fictional Dillon was also an informant, like Whitey, who was shown both protecting and promoting his own interests by funneling information about his underworld competition to the police. Carr stated, "In other words, Dillon appeared to be a prototype of the gangster that James J. Bulger would become," although George V. Higgins, just before his death, denied that he had based Dillon on Bulger when he was queried by Carr. “I wrote about Dillon before Whitey became Whitey, if you know what I mean.” He also denied that he knew who O'Brien was. (Higgins had a character based on Bulger associate Steve "The Rifleman" Flemmi listening to Carr on the radio in his last novel At End of Day.)
- Boeri, David. [George Higgins: The Teller Of Boston’s Stories "George Higgins: The Teller Of Boston’s Stories"]. WBUR. Retrieved September 2, 2011.
- "‘Eddie Coyle' hitting the stage". The Boston Globe.
- Kimball, George. "Looking Back At An Unlikely Acquaintance With Whitey Bulger". WBUR. Retrieved September 2, 2011.
- Carr, Howie. "George V. Higgins’ Eddie Coyle: Even Better than True". CriminalElement.com. Retrieved April 13, 2012.
- "The Friends of Eddie Coyle". Macmillan Publishing. Retrieved September 6, 2010.