Val McDermid reveals the influence of George V. Higgins on her work
11 February 2013
Val McDermid is the brilliantly accomplished, award-winning
author of 26 bestselling crime novels, and the acknowledged queen
of the psychological thriller. Her novel The Wire in the
Blood formed the basis for the television series of the same
Here she talks about how, as an aspiring author, she discovered
the work of George V. Higgins.
When I first read George V. Higgins in the early 1980s, it was a
revelation. I had literally never read crime fiction like it. I
picked up The Friends of Eddie Coyle in the bookshop -
long since closed and gone - where I used to browse during my lunch
hour. I flicked through it, and even on that superficial first
glance, I could see there was a lot of dialogue.
I was intrigued. I was trying to write fiction myself, but my
day job was journalism. I was accustomed to using quotes to drive a
news story along, but I hadn't considered that it was possible to
work the same magic in a novel. At that point, I was using dialogue
quite sparingly. I let the authorial voice carry the story and only
let the characters slip into conversation when I couldn't avoid
So I bought the book. I took it back to the office and started
reading right away. I was hooked from the first sentence. 'Jackie
Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he
could get some guns.' And then it's straight into direct speech.
But this isn't the formal speech of the traditional English
detective novel. What Higgins wrote was just as artificial, but
different in one crucial respect - it sounded authentic. You could
believe this was how the tough guys and low life crims who
populated his pages actually spoke.
More than that, he used this spare and colloquial dialogue to
tell the story. There's little direct narrative or scene-setting in
his books. Instead, you have to concentrate on the shorthand speech
that flows back and forth if you want to figure out what's going
on. And what's going on is generally nasty, brutish and singularly
lacking in characters with any redeeming features. These are
stories from the underbelly of Boston, a world Higgins had got to
know as a prosecuting attorney.
And yet, out of these unlovely people in their unpromising and
uncompromising circumstances, Higgins created something remarkable.
His early novels in particular reveal lives that most of us are
glad we know nothing about at first hand. They take the lid off a
section of society that most people despise, much as Dickens did,
and they help us to understand those alien lives.
George V. Higgins, like Elmore Leonard, gives a voice to life's
losers - especially the losers who think they're winners. And he
does it through dialogue that sparks and crackles with life. He
taught me how to reveal character, to drive plot and to create
atmosphere, all through the medium of speech. But more important
than that, he gave me pleasure.
He still does.
Val McDermid's latest novel, The Vanishing
Point, is available in paperback and ebook.
George V. Higgins' Cogan's Trade was recently
adapted as the film Killing Them Softly, starring Brad
Pitt, and is available in paperback and ebook from Orion, along
with a number of other titles by the author.
Them Softly - The Genius of George V. Higgins
Bill Massey on the art of crime
Robert Wilson on The
on The Best Boston Movie Ever