The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins (Shane's book 35, 2011)

"Hey Foss," the prosecutor said, taking Clark by the arm, "of course it changes. Don't take it so hard. Some of us die, the rest of us get older, new guys come along, old guys disappear. It changes everyday."

[amtap book:isbn=031242969X]

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is another classic of the hardboiled crime genre but while The Hunter is the equivalent of the Hollywood action thriller, this is the precursor to something more realistic, such as The Wire. The characters here, whether crooks, cops or lawyers, are just doing their jobs as best they can.

In his introduction Dennis Lehane - a novelist and one of the writers for The Wire - describes the book as "the game-changing crime novel of the last 50 years". He notes that the book is almost all dialogue and praises Higgins' ear for real speech.

The plot concerns Eddie Coyle, a smalltime crook in Boston, who is facing jail time for his part in a robbery. In an attempt to avoid prison, Coyle begins feeding information to the police. He doesn't think he's giving them anything important but, unknown to him, someone else is feeding better information and Coyle could end up taking the blame.

It's fairly clear early on how the book is going to end but that isn't the point. What makes this book so good is Higgins's evocation of character and place. He wrote this while working as an attorney in Boston and his knowledge of the system comes through in the tangible authenticity of the dialogue and the setting.

Higgins does so much of his storytelling through speech that the story takes on a hazy, vague quality at times. It adds to the unsettling feel of scenes such as the bank robberies carried out by the gang that Coyle is supplying with weapons. The cold precision of the robbers and the business-like capitulation of the bank staff is brilliantly rendered.

As with The Hunter, it's clear to see how influential this book has been. However, while that book has been so thoroughly imitated that it feels like an imitation itself, there is a quality in The Friends of Eddie Coyle that is very hard to imitate. Indeed, Lehane's introduction says that even Higgins could not manage to imitate this book with any success.

It still feels fresh and it's a thoroughly engaging read.