George V. Higgins, prosecutor and novelist who wrote about 25 books, primarily about underworld crime, beginning with the best seller “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” has died. He was 59.
Higgins was found dead Saturday in his home in Milton, Mass. Police said he apparently died of natural causes.
When Higgins’ tale of small-time hoodlum Eddie Coyle was published in 1972, it became an instant hit. The book was made into a film of the same title the following year, directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum, and was later chosen as one of the top 20 postwar American novels by the Book Marketing Council.
Along with his next two gritty tales, “The Digger’s Game” in 1972 and “Cogan’s Trade” in 1974, “Eddie Coyle” established Higgins as a top mystery writer, adept at mimicking the argot of the Boston underworld and telling his story in authentic, spare dialogue.
But the novelist had worked long and hard to get there--by writing prodigiously and laboring as a prosecutor in Boston’s state and federal courts.
“The disability of much American literature,” Higgins once commented to a British interviewer, “is that it’s written by college professors sitting on their big fat rusty-dusties who don’t know anything about law, politics or any subject in which real people make real livings.”
Born in the Boston suburb of Brockton, the only child of two teachers who read a lot, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Boston College, a master’s in English from Stanford University and then a law degree from Boston College. Meanwhile, he started working as a journalist for the Providence, R.I., Journal and Associated Press covering courts.
Admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1967, Higgins worked in organized crime units as a state and then federal prosecutor until 1974, when he went into private defense practice. Among his clients were Watergate “plumber” and crime novelist G. Gordon Liddy and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.
Higgins wrote his first novel at age 15 and by 1970 had written 14--none published. Encouraged by his former Boston College literature professor to keep at it, Higgins weathered two rejection slips for “Eddie Coyle,” and then one snowy night opened a letter from Alfred A. Knopf beginning: “We would like to accept your novel, and we will pay you $2,000.”
“Hell,” the proven author told The Times in 1986, “I would have paid them $2,000 and I didn’t even have it. What a sleigh ride!”
In reviewing his second novel, “The Digger’s Game,” former Times book critic Robert Kirsch wrote: “As a hundred reviews attest, Higgins has a gift for big-city, nether-world smart talk. It is profane and salty but vigorous and imaginative and full of humor. . . . Higgins makes the dialogue do everything but climb up a rope. It reveals character, advances the plot, exposes the past and shakes us out of our assumption that the underworld is really anything else than the frontier of the square world.”
Although Boston crime was Higgins’ milieu in fiction as well as fact, he veered to Washington, D.C., occasionally, including his 1975 novel “City on a Hill” and his nonfiction Watergate study the same year, “The Friends of Richard Nixon.”
David S. Broder, the eminent syndicated Washington columnist, praised the novel as “an extraordinary piece of writing, in which Higgins employs his unerring gift for recreating the tone and rhythm of politicians’ talk to tell the entire story in dialogue.” Many critics termed that book the definitive Washington novel.
Among Higgins’ other works of fiction were three featuring protagonist lawyer Jerry Kennedy--"Kennedy for the Defense” in 1980, “Penance for Jerry Kennedy” in 1985 and “Defending Billy Ryan” in 1992.
Churning out a novel a year for a couple of decades, Higgins also wrote varied nonfiction works including “The Progress of the Seasons: Forty Years of Baseball in Our Town” in 1989 about the Boston Red Sox, and “On Writing: Advice for Those Who Write to Publish (Or Would Like To)” in 1990.
Higgins also wrote columns from 1977 to 1985 for the Boston Herald American, the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal. He taught college-level classes in law enforcement and trial practice.
Although his later novels were less successful than his earliest, Higgins continued to work. His most recent novel, “The Agent,” was published this year.
The author is survived by his wife, Loretta, and two children by a former marriage, Susan and John.