Friday, 21 November 2014

Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins Review

Johnny Amato has a plan: he's going to hire a couple guys to knock over a mob poker game run by Markie Trattman. Trattman went to prison for 5 years after knocking over a different mob poker game and Amato figures that if his guys go in and do it, Trattman will get the blame again and Amato will be home free with the cash. But when the robbery goes as planned, the mob calls in its most ruthless enforcer - Jackie Cogan - who is determined to find the culprits and send a message to anyone thinking of trying anything similar ever again.

By page 3 I was hooked. The dialogue between Amato, Frankie and Russell is simply incredible. It sounds startlingly realistic and by its sheer authenticity, it makes the story immediately involving. This is my first George Higgins novel so I wasn't sure what to expect - his writing style is basically all dialogue. About 95% of this book is dialogue and it kind of reads like a play! From the opening scene where 3 guys are sat in an office talking, the story plays out with various guys sitting around talking, telling anecdotes about women they've slept with, the quality of their home lives, stories from being in jail, previous crimes they were involved in - the list goes on, they talk about anything and everything. But the plot moves at a glacial pace and the initial thrill of the conversations wore off about halfway through, leaving me wondering why hardly anything seemed to be happening.

I'm conflicted about this book; on the one hand I'm in total admiration of George Higgins' ability to render dialogue, particularly gangster dialogue, so convincingly - and on the other, the sheer amount of it just envelops the novel and stultifies the actual story. Here's the problem with the story: the reader knows who knocks over the game, and also knows Cogan knows who knocked over the game - so we spend at least 100 pages (half the book) waiting for Cogan to spring the trap, which he does only in the final 10 pages or so. For most of the book there's no narrative tension. Meanwhile the dialogue and endless anecdotes about basically anything randomly picked from the characters' lives, while realistic, don't make up for a lack of forward momentum in the story.

Higgins' use of spoken language to render character is astonishing - you understand the characters indelibly by simply reading their speech (and they are speeches; the dialogue for each character is so extensive it's like they're taking turns lecturing one another!) you get an understanding of their background, intelligence, life story, and personality. This in itself is so rare amongst novelists that this book is worth reading for anyone interested in seeing how dialogue, when written well, can be a substitute for description or any other literary device. To give an idea of the high quality of the dialogue, most readers/writers today when asked for an example of a writer whose character speech is the best would say Elmore Leonard; the writer Elmore Leonard said wrote the best dialogue? George V. Higgins.

Cogan's Trade is a book where instead of descriptions of actions or settings, you get speech tics and tonal shifts and I really like that you have to pay attention to the conversation to understand what's going on in the scene; Higgins won't help you with omniscient narration so if you miss nuances then you miss the way the scene plays out. It makes a change from most prose fiction and feels like an incredibly sophisticated writing style, far more advanced than you would expect from genre fiction. But I felt the story itself lacked energy and the narrative didn't interest me enough to say that I loved the book. I thought the writing was fine, the characterisation through voices and the dialogue itself were exemplary but wasn't enough to sustain the novel, whose story was only so-so. Nevertheless this is an interesting kind of crime novel, one I think readers of Elmore Leonard will get a kick out of, though maybe Cogan's Trade isn't the best example of Higgins’ work.

Cogan's Trade

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