I wanted to re-read this book before the film it inspired, Killing Them Softly, came out. It’s no wonder they turned it into a movie. There’s not a character who isn’t indelible, spouting streams of entertaining knock-around guy dialogue that rivals Damon Runyon. The story is tight and simple, a little over two hundred pages, opening up to large themes even we “citizens” can relate to.
It is all kicked of by the robbery of a card game run by small time mob guy, Mark Trattman. The job and its “planning” is covered in the first three chapters. This is not the crack team of heist men you find in a Richard Stark book. Most of the plotting revolves around them arguing about the other guy they’re going to use. They use gardening gloves to cover their prints.
There is some suspicion that Trattman set up the robbery, so the mob brings in Jackie Cogan. Cogan is more than an enforcer, he knows the ins and outs of the organization’s politics and the rules well enough to not draw any attention. Jackie sends two thugs over to talk to Trattman. Their discussion gets overzealous and they beat up Mark. Now Trattman is angry and ready to start the kind of trouble that could get attention, the kind Cogan keeps in check.
Cogan’s Trade was George V. Higgins’ follow up to his seminal debut, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, and he continues to look at people caught up in the system they’ve become a part of. Here the focus is on the guys in the middle who are asked to keep a status quo. Higgins uses the mob to talk about how bureaucracy has taken over. Being right doesn’t matter, keeping the higher-ups happy and not rocking the boat is what it is about.
Cogan’s Trade breathes with mob reality. The violence is minimal for a gang land novel and there are no elegant godfathers running all they survey. These are the thugs and under-underbosses. They bicker about the cost of a two man hit team and worry about what the unseen boys above them will think. It’s a world Jackie Cogan knows well. The same could be said for George V. Higgins.