The Friends of Eddie Coyle Taught Elmore Leonard How to Move Things Along

By Jack Limpert


Higgins had been a reporter at the Providence Journal and the AP before going to law school.

When author Elmore Leonard received the lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, he said The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the novel by George V. Higgins, had helped teach him to write. Leonard said that early in his career his agent told him to read Eddie Coyle to see how Higgins wrote dialogue that moved a story along.

In his acceptance speech, Leonard quoted the first sentence of Eddie Coyle: “Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.”

Here’s how Higgins started the next 29 chapters:

2. The strawberry ice cream soda and the dark green Charger R/T arrived in the stocky man’s vision almost simultaneously.

3. Three heavyset men wearing nylon windbreakers and plaid woolen shirts, each of them holding a can of Schaefer beer, marched past the stocky man under Gate A as the first quarter ended.

4. “You remember Eddie Fingers,” Dave said. “Eddie Coyle? Fellow that got his hand busted up after they put Billy Wallace away for a long time on the gun that he bought from somebody.”

5. Seven and a half miles east of Palmer, Route 20 bends to the north at the top of a hill, then banks away toward the south, leaving a rest area in a grove of pine trees.

6. Dillon explained that he was frightened. “Otherwise I would help you, see?” he said.

7. Samuel T. Partridge, having heard his wife and children descend the stairs, their bathrobes swishing on the Oriental runner, the little girls discussing nursery school, his son murmuring about breakfast, showered lazily and shaved.

8. At five minutes of six, Dave Foley escaped from the traffic on Route 128 and parked the Charger at the Red Coach Grille in Braintree.

9. Jackie Brown found the tan Microbus on the upper level of the Uncommon Garage, near the stairs to the kiosk at Beacon and Charles Streets. The interior of the vehicle was dark. There were flowered curtains covering all of the windows behind the front seat. He rapped on the driver’s window.

10. The stocky man seemed pressed for time, and had no patience for conversation. He said to Jackie Brown: “You owe me ten more guns. I need them fast. When am I going to get them?”

11. Foley explained the delay. “I got your call from the office,” he said. “I was out in the woods there. I came as fast as I could. What’s on your mind?”

12. “The duck sent me,” Jackie Brown said to the battered green door on the third floor landing of the tenement house.

13. In Desi’s Place on Fountain Street in Providence, Jackie Brown found a kid with greasy brown hair and a bad complexion. He was wearing a cheap, plaid sport shirt and chino pants and he needed a shave. He looked worried. He was sitting alone in a booth in the back of the restaurant.

14. Foley and Waters sat in the chief’s office with their feet on his desk and his television murmuring the tail end of the David Frost Show.

15. Jackie Brown brought the Roadrunner slowly into the Fresh Pond Shopping Center, chose a place in the middle of a row of cars, and killed the engine. He looked at his watch.

16. Eddie Coyle put his hands in his pockets and rested his back against the green metal post that supported the arcade of the shopping plaza above the telephone booths.

17. Jackie Brown got caught in traffic in Watertown.

18. In a depleted sandpit in Orange, Massachusetts, there is a trailer park.

19. With no expression on his face, Jackie Brown sat in the outer office, his cuffed hands in his lap. Tobin Ames. a shotgun across his lap, sat behind a desk, opposite Jackie Brown, watching him.

20. Robert L. Biggers of Duxbury, having been unable to sleep, dawdled over breakfast and read the Herald thoroughly.

21. The receptionist spoke apologetically. “I asked him for his name, Mr. Foley,” she said, “and he wouldn’t give it.”

22. Corporal Vardenias of the Massachusetts State Police was eating breakfast at two o’clock in the morning at the Eastern Airlines lunchroom at Logan Airport.

23. Dillon said he wasn’t sure that Foley would be interested in what he had.

24. It was getting light along the shore drive in Natant at quarter of six on Tuesday morning when Fritz Weber parked the blue Le Sabre.

25. Eddie Coyle had overslept.

26. Dillon found the silver Continental with the black vinyl roof in the parking lot at Columbia Station in Dorchester.

27. “He didn’t show up,” Foley said. “I sit there for about a half hour, and I have a cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee.”

28. Coyle came into Dillon’s place shortly after three-thirty in the afternoon.

29. In the course of the evening, Coyle had several drinks.

30. Jackie Brown at twenty-seven sat with no expression on his face in the first row behind the bar of Courtroom Four of the United District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle was 183 pages, cost $5.95, and had lots of dialogue, short sentences, and short chapters. It was published in 1972 by Alfred A. Knopf and in 1973 was made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle. When Higgins wrote it, he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

Norman Mailer said of the novel: “What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.”

Two earlier posts about George V. Higgins:

Thanks to Brad Pitt, a New Appreciation of George V. Higgins.

Remembering George V. Higgins.



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