Friday, May 28, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Bean Town Crime, A Collection of Boston Noir Stories

 When I think of Boston, I think of George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

For more than a dozen years during the time I worked for a Defense Department command in Philadelphia, our regional headquarters was located in Boston. I visited Boston quite often during those years.

Boston has fine bars and restaurants and fine historical and cultural scenes, and I’ve had some fine times there – yet to me Boston will always be first and foremost the home of The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Picador has released a 40th anniversary edition of the 1970 crime novel about low-level, low-life criminals, and I’m pleased that new readers are discovering this classic crime story.

Higgins (seen in the above photo) was a former reporter and worked as an assistant U.S. attorney when the book was published. He knew criminals and he accurately captured their language, their life-styles and their double-dealing.

The 1973 film adaptation was faithful to Higgins’ novel and the British director, Peter Yates, cast Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle and Peter Boyle as his “friend”, a bartender and part-time hit man.

As George Kimball noted in his piece on the 40th anniversary of the novel in the Irish Times, Robert Mitchum befriended James “Whitey”Bulger, a notorious Boston gangster, during the filming in Boston

Higgins, the assistant U.S. attorney, warned Yates about Bulger and suggested that Mitchum stay clear of him. Mitchum, who had a perverse sense of humor and was for many years Hollywood’s bad boy, replied that since he had done “time” for using marijuana some years before, he was the “criminal” that Bulger should be leery of.

I'm not sure if the story is accurate, but its a good story.

Bulger would later gain national attention when it came out that he was an FBI informant. He used his FBI controller to eliminate his Cosa Nostra competition, while at the same time the FBI protected him from prosecution as he committing a wide variety of crimes that included multiple murders.

This great Boston crime story was captured by journalists Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill in their book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob.

Higgins may have been unable to separate Mitchum from Bulger during the filming of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but he got the last laugh on Bulger in the sense that his last novel was a fictional account of the Bulger story called At End of Day.

Dennis Lehane, author of his own great Boston crime novel, Mystic River (made into an equally great film by director Clint Eastwood) ,wrote the introduction to Picador’s new edition of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. He wrote that The Friends of Eddie Coyle was the game-changing crime novel of the last fifty years. Lehane added that Eddie Coyle cast a long shadow over Boston novels in any genre.

Lehane also wrote the introduction and edited Boston Noir (Akashic Books), a collection of short stories about crime and the dark side of Boston.

“No matter what you may hear to the contrary, noir is not a genre defined by fedoras, silver streams of cigarette smoke, vampy femme fates, huge whitewall tires, mournful jazz playing in the gloomy background, and lots and lots of shadows,’ Lehane wrote in the introduction. “Nor is it simply scuzzy people doing scuzzy things to other scuzzy, a kind of trailer park opera.”

One could argue, Lehane wrote, that what it is, however, is working-class tragedy…

“Eddie Coyle is a good example here because if there’s a more seminal noir novel of the last forty years than The Friends of Eddie Coyle, I don’t know of it,” Lehane wrote.

Lehane goes on to write that Eddie Coyle is more than just a seminal noir; it’s also the quintessential Boston novel.

“It captures the tribalism of the city, the fatalism of it, and the out sized humor of people who believe God likes a good laugh, usually at your expense. Boston is a city that produces guys – or, in the city’s vernacular, knuckleheads – who once stole the replica of a cow that sat in front of a Braintree steak house. The cow weighed what a car weighed, and yet these knuckleheads had the industry to get it onto a pickup truck, drive it back to South Boston, and deposit it in the middle of Broadway. They did this solely so they could then call the Boston Police Department and ask them to respond to a “beef going down on Broadway.”

As Lehane points out in his introduction, Boston has its distinct humor, distinct accent and distinct vocabulary.

Lehane’s contribution to the book is one of three short stories that stand out in my view.

In Animal Rescue, a sad-sack character named Bob tends bar in an old-style crime hang out. Bob rescues an abused dog, which leads to his meeting a pair of unsavory types who could have been friends of Eddie Coyle.

In another good short story, Brendon DuBois offers a post-WWII private eye who takes on a client that simply wants him to retrieve a box of belongings her late-boyfriend left at a military base on a Boston Harbor island. Naturally, nothing is simple in these kinds of stories.
In Turn Speed, Russ Asborn gives us a group of not-so-slick criminals who think they’re slick. The boys rob a mob-connected trucking boss, which leads to a surprise ending.

I enjoyed the stories in Boston Noir, but I wonder why there is no collection of Philly noir stories.

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