At End of Day

(This column was first published in the July 12, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

George V. Higgins died in 1999. At that time a Philadelphia Inquirer obituary said of his writing: "All the famous ingredients are present -- the pitch-perfect dialogue, the shaggy-dog monologues, the lively mugs.... Always readable, always entertaining, the lowlife's Boswell -- no one else was ever like him."

Indeed. Higgins' 1972 story, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, changed crime writing forever. Novelists like Elmore Leonard trace their work directly to him. And his final book, sadly but appropriately entitled At End of Day (Harcourt, 2000), maintains his quality and those obit ingredients to the very end.

Once again this is a story of Boston cops and robbers, every one of whom loves to talk. And their stories about themselves and their work carry the plot. Here, for example, is an FBI agent telling his newly arrived boss, about the vicious gangster, Arthur McKeach, and how they must get to him:

"'So, in order to hook him we've gotta find people who know what he's done because they helped him plan it and then helped him do it, or did it for him, on his orders -- and convince them to testify for us. The only way I know of doing that that I ever saw work -- even it doesn't, always; some people're too proud to become finks -- is to make them more afraid of what we can and will do to them, if they don't talk, than they already are of what McKeach can and will do to them if they do.

 

"'Mighty hard to do, and that's a big advantage for him. Potential witnesses know whatever pain we may inflict on them if they refuse to help us, we won't maim or kill them -- or their loved ones. And, with good reason, they're convinced that if they do help us, McKeach is not only capable of doing such things but absolutely certain to do them. He will kill them himself or have someone else kill them, to prevent them from harming him if he can or to punish them after they've harmed him. Even if he has to reach out from prison or the grave to do it -- both of which they believe he could do without breaking a sweat.

"'When people really do think that, there's no way we can make them believe that we can protect them. Where McKeach's concerned there's no such thing as a Witness Protection Program. They believe he can and he will find them, get at them from wherever he is -- wherever they or their loved ones are -- and retaliate against them, if they go up against him. That's why we've never had any witnesses, simple as that. His henchmen and his lackeys, disgruntled prat-boys and spiteful ex-girlfriends -- they won't have that lovely, law-abiding change of heart. No one'll dare help us. Proof's in front of your eyes -- he's devoted a mere quarter century or so since he did his last stretch to blatant criminal activities, day after day and night after night, right under our very noses, and we haven't laid a glove on him.

"'It's an aura that he has. A lot of people who dislike McKeach -- and a lot of people who fear him -- he's never done anything to, personally. They've just been hearing stuff about him ever since they were young kids -- this all-encompassing power that he has, to do evil. The people who repeat these stories without having any idea of whether they're true -- they're doing McKeach's work for him.

"'And there's a hell of a lot of them. Sometimes it's like they're like Seventh Day Adventists or Jehovah's Witnesses -- everywhere you look in Greater Boston, there's another one. If his name comes up when you're talking to someone in the main Registry Office, and Rita Gaspari's within earshot, she'll drop what she's doing -- come over and tell you what a savage bastard McKeach is....'"

And here is that same detective explaining to a colleague how his boss (he's referred to demeaningly as Stoat here) doesn't understand the local status of the Italian crime families:

"'To your basic career hoodlum, sticking up banks and shaking down smugglers, shooting a guy in the head or actually emptying a thirty-round banana clip into him -- those're things they do -- not on TV, real life. Normal routine; their occupations -- just like restocking cookies and chips in aisle twelve, correcting thirty-two science tests or getting ready for the annual going-back-to-school sale, the kind of things that normal people deal with every day, and every year, their lives.

"'Robberies, smuggling; hijacking and fencing; the odd murder now and then, like shooting some guy in the face? While he's looking at you? And probably talking to you, begging you please not to shoot him? These're just the normal things that the hoodlums're always planning, like we plan and shop for cookouts, New Year's Eve parties. Stealing a getaway car, set of plates somewhere else; making sure you got a gun that can't be traced and a good supply of bullets -- this is the way they live. But now, when somebody gets caught, he'll almost always sell a friend to save his own white ass.

"'Stoat doesn't understand this yet. He saw the goddamned movie. But The Godfather is history. Don Vito Corleone really is dead. Marlon Brando ain't runnin' 'this thing of ours' anymore. Isn't like it used to be, as Stoat still assumes it is; omerta rules the day. It doesn't. Just the opposite, in fact. Once OC gets involved now, and we bag one of them, someone's going to snitch. It's practically a footrace to see which rat talks first. The old days of rispetatto're over."

And here in this hilarious passage that same detective (Farrier) explains why women are excluded from most criminal organizations:

'Disapproval? okay?' Farrier said, 'probably part of it. But there's another reason all the women always get uneasy when they get around this LCN stuff. It's not because they think it's violent. It's because -- and I don't think they even know this, or realize they know it if they actually do? It's because the OC squads remind them of the clubhouses we had in the woods, when we were kids. The best thing they had about them was the signs -- 'NO GIRLS ALLOWED.' Always had those signs -- in big red letters.

"'Right?' Farrier said. 'Well, the mob still has them. Grownup, adult, dangerous men have all the rituals and stuff, the voodoo initiations with the holy cards and finger pricking, and the taking of solemn oaths? You look at this objectively and you have got to think that basically it's silly -- it is really -- silly -- shit.

"'If you brought a smart woman into one of those super-secret, mystic-shrine, omerta ceremonies, all right? Unless you had her bound and gagged, she would bust out laughin'. 'What the hell is goin' on here? Have you guys all gone nuts? What time's the tooth fairy arrive? Are we goin' trick-or-treatin'?'

"'Because organizationally, before they get to what they do and why they do it, that's what the Mafia is, what it amounts to -- a big fuckin' treehouse, the exact same kind of thing. The boys're a lot older, and bigger, more brutal, but otherwise it's the Secret Blue Knights and the Shady Lane Outlaws and that stuff. It's a wonder they don't have softball leagues?'"

But my favorite passage will, I believe, appeal to any policeman. A paraplegic (Sexton) has organized a group of equally seriously afflicted people (one, for example, with cancer) to purchase extra medications with false prescription forms that are then sold to mobsters for distribution to addicts, at each level with obvious mark-ups in price. The drug orders are now questioned by pharmacists because the people ordering them are obviously ill, but the system has now broken down and two detectives have to arrest the paraplegic. This is how they feel:

"'It bothers me because the good arrest is a work of art. You do it right and you can change a two-bit crook into a major law-enforcement asset, in the twinkling of an eye.'

"'Riiight,' Ferrigno said.

"'So I exaggerate,' Dowd said. 'But hear me out. You need to go into the arrest in the right frame of mind. The point of view you as a cop want to have when you go to grab a guy is controlled but righteous anger. You're a policeman. Guardian of the law. A professional law-enforcement person, employed by society at disgracefully low wages to exert the authority to discourage individuals from flouting the rules. Making it possible for all of us to live together in peace, harmony -- and, if possible, prosperity.

"'Now, being realistic, you can't expect every criminal you grab is going to be the Boston Strangler. Or the guy OJ's looking for, mostly on the golf course -- the guy who really killed Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. A murdering genius that hanging's too good for, go in hoping he'll resist, so you can shoot him. Several times. But depending on what he's done, the very least the suspect should be's a pain in the ass. One cut below a damn nuisance.

"He brooded. 'Every self-respecting criminal has a moral obligation to present himself at all times as at least a miserable prick. So a cop can get some pleasure outta roustin' his miserable ass. Time enough after he's been arrested and his lawyer's talked to him, start look hangdog and fakin' remorse. Practicing the rehabilitated look. This dodge of acting like a basically nice guy before you're arrested; this's unfair to police.'

"'Sexton isn't meeting his responsibilities,' Ferrigno said.

"'He's scorning them,' Dowd said. 'On the score of that performance. The effect it had on me....

"'Well, maybe you could get yourself worked up about that,' Ferrigno said. 'Get yourself psyched on the scorn -- so you can be happy to arrest him....

"'If we were still a ways away' Dowd said, 'then, maybe. But not now -- we're here. Won't have time enough to come at it from that angle. Oh, I'll arrest him anyway. After all, it is my job. But unless he acts up some, gives us at least a little guff, I won't get any enjoyment out of it.'"

I wonder how Boston is handling its loss of their 'historian' of regional crime. The city's police and criminals will never again speak so well or be so perfectly represented.