Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Experts in Their Fields

George V. Higgins was an assistant U.S. Attorney in Boston in the early 1970s when he decided to try to put on paper the world of organized crime that he saw in his work. Using his ear for the way the mostly Irish small-time criminals he dealt with talked, Higgins wrote most of The Friends of Eddie Coyle in dialogue. Conversations between criminals, between cops and between cops and criminals make up the bulk of the novel, which was hailed by authors such as Elmore Leonard as one of the top crime novels ever written.

Coyle is a low-level gunrunner for an Irish mob who's been nabbed on a hijacking charge and faces the choice of prison or informing on other criminals. Out of fear and a sense of honor, Coyle resists the pressure to inform on the people he knows best, but takes advantage of a chance to squeal on some other crooks he's not directly connected to. But the federal agent working him isn't satsified and wants more.

Again, Higgins writes the novel largely through the conversations the characters have with each other. It takes a little to get into the rhythm of the style, but his ear for the dialogue is sharp enough that it doesn't take long before you can "hear" them talking and follow better. The surprise once you do is how banal the back-and-forth actually is. None of these guys is ever going to get listed in any top 100 collection of movie quotes.

But that's not really a problem, since as a prosecutor Higgins was familiar with just how unglamorous crime actually is when it's in real life and not onscreen. Friends offers a nice corrective to the semi-romanticized vision of organized crime offered by Mario Puzo and some others. That, plus Higgins' skill at developing his low-level lowlifes into real people, more than justifies the place The Friends of Eddie Coyle holds in crime fiction.
After winning a bet by getting his first novel Inherit the Stars published, James Hogan decided he kind liked writing and figured he'd take another shot at it. Dissatisfied with the way faster-than-light (FTL) travel was often shown in science fiction novels, he decided he would try to build a story around the process by which an FTL drive was discovered, and extrapolate it from then-known scientific principles. The result was 1978's The Genesis Machine.

Bradley Clifford is a brilliant researcher who spends his day hours working for a government-directed research facility and his spare time researching the strange behavior of subatomic particles. But the political climate frowns on research without application -- specifically military application -- and his private hobby gets him on the bad side of his bosses. When he quits and joins a like-minded co-researcher at one of the last private research foundations around, he pursues his own research to fantastic implications. But that draws the attention of the same military and government officials he just left, and they pressure Clifford to use his work for their purposes. How will he maintain his principles while not sacrificing his friends and allies to government pressure?

A design engineer by trade, Hogan shows real skill at exploring and explaining the science that drives his story. The characterizations are rather flat, which makes the final twist he sets up a little artificial as well. The politics and the "villains" of the piece are barely more than caricatures at best and more often cartoonish than anything else. Although he had more than a handful of good science fiction novels left in him, Genesis finds him doing pretty well at the science but leaving a lot to be desired in the fiction.

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