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Engrossing Crime Novel Is Vintage Higgins

`DEFENDING Billy Ryan: A Jerry Kennedy Novel" is a shrewdly written, engrossing portrait of the seamy underside of Massachusetts's political and legal systems. It is, in short, vintage George Higgins.

The novel's basic narrative skillfully cuts between the wake and trial of Billy Ryan, a longtime commissioner of public works who has finally been indicted for corruption. No big-name lawyers are willing to take on the case. So Billy has to send a bag-man with $100,000 in cash to engage the services of Jerry Kennedy, a down-and-out criminal defense attorney.

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The story is told in Jerry's voice, and while the narrator spends most of his time preparing the Ryan case, he frequently loses himself in one digression after another. In some ways, these asides - a mesmerizing parade of stories from Jerry's past - are the heart of the novel.

Most of the tales have a common theme: the deceit and corruption Jerry encounters everywhere. At one point, he recalls how he cleared a seemingly innocent cop of trumped-up charges - only to find the man was on the mob's payroll.

Later, Jerry reflects on his failed marriage: He divorced his wife, Mack, after discovering that she was fooling around with another man. He could have taken her back, but Jerry's stubborn pride prevented him from doing so. As in so many other instances, Jerry's attempts to preserve his integrity in a back-stabbing world only land him in trouble.

"Defending Billy Ryan" is populated by a raft of colorful characters, ranging from Monsignor Frank Martin, a cantankerous Boston Irish priest, to Mike Dunn, the overzealous prosecutor who views Billy Ryan as his "next stepping-stone to Bigger Things." Higgins's creations are so skillfully drawn that often they don't seem to be fictional at all; they are just like people you would expect to meet if you went wandering around the Suffolk County Courthouse.

Nothing adds verisimilitude more than Higgins's talent for dialogue. Here's a sample from a story told by Billy's son-in-law: "I was blowing down One-twenty-two one morning. I'm late. And so what do I get behind? A school bus. That road's a two-lane, maximum forty, double-yellow-no-passing, and already I'm running late. Pull over and stop, and pick up a kid. Start up, go a mile, and then stop again. I'm going nuts."

That's the way people talk - and the way Higgins writes.

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