George V. Higgins: An Ear for Dialogue

Higgins as an undergraduate student at Boston College. The <em>Heights</em>, Volume 41, Number 24, May 13, 1960.

Higgins as an undergraduate student at Boston College. The Heights, Volume 41, Number 24, May 13, 1960.

George V. Higgins is one of Boston College’s most notable literary alumni.  Author of over thirty novels and non-fiction works, Higgins began his illustrious writing career as a BC undergraduate student.  Editor of the Stylus literary magazine, writer for The Heights, and recipient of The Atlantic Monthly short story award, Higgins seemed a natural for a literary life.  He did pursue his love for writing with a Master’s degree in English from Stanford University in 1965, but he returned to Boston College to attend BC Law, and received his J.D. in 1967.

Higgins worked for a short time as a news reporter before beginning his career as an attorney, and he ultimately reached the position of Assistant United States Attorney of Massachusetts.  Higgins used his work in an anti-organized crime position as inspiration for the work that made him famous: his realistic crime novels revolving around the seedy criminal underworld of Boston.  He scrapped fourteen manuscripts before publishing his first and most successful book, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.  Higgins published nearly a novel a year for the remainder of his life, and even made a foray in the non-fiction genre with The Friends of Richard Nixon, The Progress of the Seasons (concerning one of his greatest passions in life, the Boston Red Sox), and On Writing, his humorous and rather blunt guide for aspiring authors.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Higgins’ first and most successful novel.  Knopf, 1972.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Higgins’ first and most successful novel. Knopf, 1972.

Higgins was most praised – and most criticized – for the writing style that made his crime novels so realistic.  The majority of narration was left to the characters themselves, and he focused on their dialogue to bring his stories to life.  Although he was initially lauded for this style, critics accused Higgins of relying too heavily on this practice in his later novels.  Higgins addressed this critique in On Writing:

Many of my critics seem to feel that they have to say, or strongly imply, that my gift for dialogue is all I have; or that writing dialogue is not the most important attribute a novelist can have . . .  A man or woman who does not write good dialogue is not a first-rate writer. I do not believe that a writer who neglects or has not learned to write good dialogue can be depended on for accuracy in his understanding of character and in his creation of characters. Therefore to dismiss good dialogue so lightly is evidence of a critic’s incomplete understanding of what constitutes a good novel.

Recently, the Burns Library was fortunate to receive a small collection of Higgins’ correspondence with one of his lifelong friends, fellow Boston College alumnus Martin J. Kelly. Higgins and Kelly met during their years at BC and maintained a close friendship until Higgins’ death in 1999.  Evident in Higgins’ letters is his stylistic flair, dry humor, and devotion to his friend.  This collection is now available for research.  To learn more, take a look at the finding aid or contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or

  •  Sarah Nitenson, Burns Library Archival Student Assistant and Master’s student in the Department of History.


Galligan, Edward L. “Getting It Right: The Novels of George V. Higgins.” The Sewanee              Review 100, no. 2 (1992): 290-298.                                                                                      

Higgins, George V. On Writing: Advice for Those Who Write to Publish (or Would Like              to). New York: H. Holt, 1990.

Pace, Eric. “George V. Higgins, 59, Author of Crime Novels.” Time Magazine  154, no. 19            (1999).           crime-novels.html.

Skow, Thomas. “The Man with the Golden Ear.” Time Magazine 136, no. 23 (1990): 87.               Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
This entry was posted in Archives & Manuscripts, Archives Diary, B. C. History, Student Posts, University Archives and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to George V. Higgins: An Ear for Dialogue

  1. New bio of George V. Higgins —
    George v. Higgins: The Life and Writings by Erwin H Ford II, McFarland Pub, 2014. Insightful look at Higgins’ genius, his many works, his tragic untimely death. — a MUST READ!

  2. Conrad Ambrose says:

    I just read the new Higgins’ bio by Ford. incredible! Really fascinating. You get an inside look at how a writer things, feels, creates, struggles. I Highly recommend!
    Conrad Ambrose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s