The strength of this brilliant crime novel lies in the dialog, which constitutes about eighty percent of the book. George V. Higgins had an excellent ear and captures perfectly the voices of all of the characters who populate the book. I really have no idea what a group of typical run-of-the-mill criminals would actually sound like, but this is about the most realistic sounding group of crooks--and cops--that I've ever encountered in a novel.
At the center of the book is a small-time Boston criminal named Eddie Coyle, and the conceit of the book is that Eddie really doesn't have any friends. He has guys that he hangs out with and guys that he works with, and cops that he negotiates with, but none of them really gives a good goddamn about Eddie and anyone of them would sell him out for a tired dime.
Of course Eddie's not above dealing his "friends" either. He's in a real jam, having been convicted of driving a truck filled with stolen booze and he's looking at a long stretch in the pen. Eddie's convinced that he really can't do the time and he's looking to make a trade with the authorities that will get him off the hook.
Eddie's been supplying guns to a group of bank robbers. Perhaps he could give up the guy who's supplying him with the guns; perhaps he could give up the robbers themselves, but would either or both be enough to get the prosecutor to back off?
Clearly there's no honor among thieves, or among the cops, for that matter. These guys are all working stiffs, just trying to get through the day, irrespective of which side of the law they happen to reside on. There are no good guys and no bad guys in this tale; you find yourself rooting for Eddie simply because you sympathize with the poor mope and not because he embodies any recognizable virtues.
Again, it's the dialog that makes this book a classic. It has the ring of authenticity and listening to these guys scheme, negotiate, plead and promise becomes almost an intimate experience. It's a book that no fan of the crime genre should miss.