Review: Killing Them Softly by George V. Higgins

This is definitely a vintage crime novel. It’s got an old-fashioned feel to it from the very first chapter. No cell phones, no computers, no fancy hardware, just guys with guns figuring out what other guys are gonna do. In general, I like those kinds of stories and there is a lot to like about Killing Them Softly by George V. Higgins (originally titled Cogan’s Trade). I picked this up in the airport bookstore and figured it would be a good way to pass the time on the plane. (I admit it. I had 3 other books in my carry-on, but this one appealed to me right off the shelf. Don’t ever let anyone tell you cover art doesn’t matter.)

The book is full of action and violence, just as a good noir crime novel should be. Johnny Amato is planning a job and he’s got a fool-proof plan. All he needs are the right guys, guys who can keep their heads and not mess it up. He enlists Frankie and Russell to rip off a mob poker game — a pretty ballsy plan, since the mob has a very long memory, but Amato has a fall-guy in mind and he thinks they can pull it off. What he doesn’t count on is Jackie Cogan — a mob enforcer who sees the subtleties that others miss. He’s not afraid to put pressure on people and he’s ruthless. Not someone you want to have after you.

I enjoyed this; there’s a good mystery, a lot of action, a couple of interesting plot twists. I found the language a bit of a slog, I have to say. It’s like it’s all in gangster-speak and you have to translate every sentence.

“‘Remember them habes we had?’ Frankie said.

“Habes? What habes? We had about nine hundred habes. Every time I turn around that monkey’s pulling out something I gotta sign. What habes?'”

Took me a few readings to figure out they were referring to writs of habeas corpus. Guess I’m not up on my old-school gangster slang.

There is also an oddity about the way they speak, repeating their words – “I’m gonna, I’m gonna go do this thing” — that everyone does in the book. Perhaps a local mannerism, but it was odd and hard on my ears as I was reading it. It’s tough when you’re enjoying the story, but the language and the style make for difficult reading. I must say that I loved some of the back-chatter — the guys talking about their wives and their money problems and their girlfriends. That made me laugh and seemed very realistic. Just the sort of thing you’d talk about, stuck in a car, waiting for a guy.

Overall, it’s a quick read and a good pick for folks who like tough guys and guns (and really, who doesn’t like tough guys and guns?). And here’s something you won’t often hear me say: the movie looks better than the book. Some books are just screaming to be movies and this is one of them. I like Brad Pitt and there’s a great cast around him in this; I could place the characters just by looking at the actors, no introductions necessary. Definitely going to be fun to watch.

My copy of Killing Them Softly came from a bookstore in the Atlanta airport. The movie is scheduled for release in November, 2012.


  4 comments for “Review: Killing Them Softly by George V. Higgins

  1. September 28, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    I think all the “gangster speak” would take me out of the story. I saw the trailer for the movie yesterday and didn’t think it was for me.

  2. September 29, 2012 at 3:21 am

    You make an interesting and valid point regarding the language. Higgins’ other book made into a film, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, demonstrated that the late Mr. Higgins’ was the master of blue-collar, Boston rhythmic dialog. Peter Yates, who directed the film adaptation of Coyle, made special mention of this rhythm and “the way these type of people speak to each other” in his director’s commentary during the opening scene – which is available on Criterion DVD. (Also feel free to view a 7 minute tribute I shot for that scene in Coyle by clicking my website link. We actually recreated 2 scenes).

    His writing is rooted in dialog and banter between characters and written in a style born of his experience with the lower echelon criminals he was in contact with while a Boston-based Asst. DA. Many give credit to his style as being inspirations to other fans of the literary/screenplay conversation – Mamet, Elmore Leonard and maybe even Tarantino to name a few.

    As for difficulty follow it at times, I hear ya….I’m born and raised in blue collar, East Boston, where people like the characters in “Cogan’s Trade” (don’t like the re-title) and “TFoEC” would hang out and you would of course, converse with them if you happened to play hockey or softball with them or exchange discussions at the local bar (Kelly’s Pub or Victory Pub to name a few). Even with this experience, I also found it a little difficult at times to stay with the conversations in both these novels. The trick I used when I got stuck was to read the dialogue out loud. Only then, did it make sense to me. Funny how you have to sometimes tune the mind to listen and process to match a tuned ear. If you think about it, Shakespeare is like that on the other side of the literary spectrum.

  3. Lisa
    September 29, 2012 at 3:35 am

    That makes perfect sense and it’s one of the reasons that I expect I’ll enjoy the movie — it will be easier to listen to the narrative than read it. I also think that with that sort of dialect, you need to have heard it spoken before you can “hear” it when you read it. I don’t have trouble getting lost in Shakespeare, for example, because I know in my head what that is supposed to sound like. And this sounds like a good excuse for a trip to Boston!

    I also agree with you on the retitling – I hate it! That phrase doesn’t appear in the book, and I couldn’t see how it fit at all. A sawed-off shotgun is not soft.

  4. September 29, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    “That phrase doesn’t appear in the book, and I couldn’t see how it fit at all. A sawed-off shotgun is not soft….” hahah LOL! 🙂

    Have fun when you go to Boston and make sure you get a pizza and barbequed lamb plate at Santarpio’s Pizza in East Boston before you fly home. It is right outside the entrance to Logan Airport…you will definitely hear Cogan’s Trade/Eddie Coyle banter there! 🙂

    Also – here is a link to my tribute production of one of the two scenes we recreated from Eddie Coyle. Enjoy!

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