Cogan’s Trade (aka: Killing Them Softly) and the Pragmatics of Morality

Author George V. Higgins

Author George V. Higgins

George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade (recently re-published as Killing Them Softly after the film adaptation of the novel was release) is a clever piece of crime fiction that manages to create a flawed hyper-masculine world that is entertaining and interesting at once.  It is not simply a 70’s version of pulp novels though, but rather a piece that creates philosophical gangsters akin to those created by Quentin Tarantino in films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but pre-dating them by two decades.  Moral codes are challenged, and though we see various members of an organized crime unit execute what are sometimes violent responses to the actions of others who run within their circles, moral judgements are often reserved.  The violence is a matter of pragmatics, not of moral condemnation.  This, coupled with some interesting dialogue (dialogue which takes great pains to accurately reflect in intonations of authentic conversations, often at the expense of grammatical rules) serve to make the novel an entertaining and engaging read.


The original jacket for the novel 'Cogan's Trade'.

The original jacket for the novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’.

One passage that lends itself to multiple readings is when one character, Steve, is recounting a conversation he’s had with Markie Trattman.  He asks: “Markie, you ask girls to fuck, you don’t even want to fuck.”  Trattman replies: “how the fuck do I know, I don’t wanna fuck the girl, unless I fuck her?”  This is an interesting dialogue that suggests the value of experience over what is socially prescribed.  Trattman would rather embrace an experience and then make a judgement about it, rather than dismissing the experience without having indulged in it.  His assessments are reserved until experience can inform him, socially prescribed judgements aside.  This, though employed in a strictly heterosexual context here, can be applied to a queer theory reading as well, speaking to how people often make judgments about homosexuality without any actual experience, though the implications can be more far reaching than that as well.




A promotional poster for the film adaption of 'Cogan's Trade'.

A promotional poster for the film adaption of ‘Cogan’s Trade’.

Trattman, seeing a card game he is running robbed several years after he had orchestrated a similar robbery, finds himself confronted by two thugs: the aforementioned Steve and his brother Barry.  When they go to assault him, they repeatedly use the word ‘talk’ euphemistically in place of the word ‘beat’.  The reader and all of the characters involved know the contextual meaning of the word, but it is interesting because the scene demonstrates the malleability of language.  The scene also reveals that both Steven and Barry have done similar work for Trattman in the past, and when Trattman asks why they are executing this order against him given their shared history, they remind him that of his own past indiscretions, stating that they are doing this “for the same reasons, [they] used to do things when [Trattman] wanted [them] to.  Only this time, [they’re] doing it for somebody else”.  This perhaps speaks to issues of loyalty, most especially in capitalist society, where economic motivations are what drives people and not loyalty (similar to mercenary armies in the pre-Treaty of Westphalia era).  This is a matter of pragmatics of course, but it suggests an underlining problem with capitalist mentalities.  The men are also willing to step outside of socially accepted moral codes to assault a man whom they hold no grudge against, demonstrating the influence or economics in such situations.



A movie poster for the film based on the novel 'Cogan's Trade'.

A movie poster for the film based on the novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’.

After Trattman is severely beaten, Jackie Cogan, who orchestrated the beating under the instructions of an unnamed benefactor, is reprimanded by ‘the Driver’ who speaks to Cogan on behalf of the benefactor.  The beating, it seems, was too severe, but Cogan shifts responsibility onto the benefactor, stating: “You want things done… you know what you want… and you takes what you get because that’s what you wanted, but you always go out after and you say, you didn’t want nobody” hurt.  Cogan goes on to say: “They know… who Steve is.  They know what him and Barry do.  Shit, I mean, they’re guys that’ve always been around”.  When the driver claims that the benefactor didn’t “okay” the beating, Cogan rebuffs him, stating: “He okayed it… I told you who I was gonna use.  He knows it just as good as I do”.  Here we have an example of complacent consumption.  The benefactor wants something and pays to get it, knowing full well that the process includes a criminal act, but afterwards the benefactor speaks out against the criminal act despite the fact the he knew beforehand what was going to take place.  We see similar instances with Iphones and jewelry whose components are harvested from conflict zones.  Consumers are aware of the criminal acts, but speak against them whilst at the same time facilitating their execution.  Be it major retailers who buy merchandise from sweat shops, or manufacturers who buy raw components from conflict zones, the consumer bankrolls exploitation but wishes to be absolved of complacency in the criminal act.  They are either willfully blind, or overtly complacent.  Cogan admits his involvement in the process, but refuses to allow the consumer to absolve himself from his complacency in the act.  It is perhaps the most potent scene in the novel.



Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan.

Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan.

There are other themes woven throughout.  Existentialist ideas, for example.  Cogan notes that “the world’s full of guys who never fucked up, and then they did something and they fucked up once and they’re doing time”.  This idea that a person has to constantly define themselves to maintain their identity, or that an act can redefine an identity that had lasted nearly a life time.  We see a similar theme in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone when the protagonists uncle explains that her father was not a rat and didn’t talk to the cops for years, until one time he did.  The one mistake can redefine a lifetime of accomplishments.


Ben Mendelsohn, who gives perhaps the most convincing performance in 'Killing Them Softly', though props go out to Richard Jenkins as well.

Ben Mendelsohn, who gives perhaps the most convincing performance in ‘Killing Them Softly‘, though props go out to Richard Jenkins as well.

The novel also speaks to reality against social constructs.  Cogan references is a character named China.  China, it is said, would “eat shit before he’d talk”, and in practice followed this approach to the letter.  But rumours were spread by somebody who sought to sabotage China’s reputation, and suddenly, within a social setting, China was seen as a potential informer despite his actions to the contrary.  This idea of social constructs and social perceptions outweighing the facts has far reaching implications.  In the novel, China manages to restore his reputation, but this is not always the case as Cogan sums up when he states: “it’s not what you been doing so much’s it is what guys thing you been doing”.  Our perceptions are our realities.


The beautiful Linara Washington, the only female cast member of the film adaptation of 'Cogan's Trade'.

The beautiful Linara Washington, the only female cast member of the film adaptation of ‘Cogan’s Trade’.

The novel is rich with dialogue, interesting characters, has a well-paced narrative and interesting philosophical explorations.  It is a detective novel, like Winter’s Bone, only rather than a traditional detective looking to solve a crime, it is members of organized crime (who seem to frankly do a much better job of investigation than do the police).  The most curious aspect of the novel it the utter absence of women, save a sex-trade worker who is spoken to harshly.  Perhaps this absence is meant to demonstrate how a patriarchal world is one which is ultimately greatly flawed and is bound to create an atmosphere of exploitation, especially when it comes to women.  The film adaption is worth watching.  James Gandolfini is one of his final performances is great, as is Richard Jenkins and Brad Pitt nails Cogan.  The rest of the cast is great, perhaps most notably Ben Mendelsohn who really knows how to convince an audience of his character’s authenticity.  Scoot McNairy is also good.  The screen writers add some interesting dialogue, notably the final scene where Cogan deconstructs the American mythos (video below).  Cogan notes that “Jefferson is an American saint because he wrote the words ‘All men are created equal’, words he clearly didn’t believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery.  He was a rich white snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits.  So yeah, he wrote some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went out and died for those words while sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl.”  The word ‘fucked’ might be more accurately termed ‘raped’, but the sentiment is there.  Cogan makes it clear that the motivations for most people are not altruistic, but self-serving, even in the case of the most cherished American icons.  The system America glorifies, the system of capitalism, is one based on exploitation, and as Cogan says in the film: “America is not a country.  It’s a business.”  The film also replaces the benefactor with a board, which is interesting because it ties ‘legitimate’ capitalist organizations with criminal organizations and makes the implications even more pronounced that they were in the source material while also highlighting how the bureaucratic nature business allows complacency in criminal behaviour whilst absolving individuals in the process.  Read the book, watch the film and enjoy.



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Lines I thought were interesting:


“It’s just one crazy bastard taking advantage of another crazy bastard.”

Russell, one of the stick-up men after complaining about the girl he had just slept with: “I didn’t say I wasn’t going back, I said she was crazy.”


“The cops’ve got bigger hard-ons for [drugs than] they got for fuckin’ coons with fuckin’ guns.”  The cops in questions want to use the drugs of course, not make arrests, and interesting implication in that the high they get is on some sort of parity terms with the thrill of targeting citizens based on perceived race.


“He made two mistakes, the second mistake was making the first mistake, like it always is.  That’s all you get, two mistakes.”


“But I can tell you… there’s no ass inna whole wide world like a young Jewish girl that’s hookin’.”


“When you wanna get laid, there’s no such thing as a great blow job.”

“Guys get whacked for doing things, guys get whacked for not doing things”.


Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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