BOOK REVIEW / A boozy lunch with a terminally smartarse lawyer: 'Defending Billy Ryan' - George V Higgins: Little, Brown, 14.99 pounds

John Williams
Sunday 11 April 1993 23:02 BST

FOR MOST of the big-name practitioners of the art, the question of whether crime novels qualify as serious literature is beside the point. Maybe, after a few Evian waters, Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy might get a little steamed on the subject, but why should they care? Enough people buy their books to anaesthetise the pain of critical condescension.

For George V Higgins, the subject is somewhat more fraught. To literary folk he may be their favourite crime novelist, but he's still a crime novelist; while for the average crime punter in the airport bookstall, there's a distinct lack of the genre's more familiar thrills.

This all began to come to a head for Higgins about 10 years ago when he put out a book called A Choice of Enemies. This was his big novel, an epic story of Massachusetts politics, greed and corruption, a book whose anti-hero, the monstrously venal politician Benny Morgan, is one of the great characters of modern American fiction. Higgins thinks the book should have won a Pulitzer. Instead, it further alienated his crime audience.

Despite the setback, Higgins continued to produce fine work during the Eighties: Impostors and Outlaws were both excellent widescreen novels about crime; Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years was a supremely well-judged, dark and downbeat tale of things falling apart in the twilight of the Reagan era. None of these, however, did much to increase his popular appeal. Nor, to any great degree, did his two most obviously commercial novels of the period, Kennedy For the Defence and A Penance for Jerry Kennedy. And the frustration has started to show.

First there was Trust, a terse, acerbic novel-about-criminals that deliberately raised echoes of Higgins's debut - and still most successful - novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Then came Victories, a somewhat opaque prequel to Trust. Then came The Mandeville Talent, brassily subtitled 'a crime novel', and no more or less than it advertised itself to be: a whodunit written by a master.

And now we have Defending Billy Ryan, a third outing for Higgins's series character, Jerry Kennedy, and a canny commercial move, series characters being the secret of mass-market success as far as most crime publishers are concerned. But the two previous Kennedy novels are not among Higgins's best. They are stories about 'Boston's classiest sleazy criminal lawyer', his lowlife clients and his cute family. This last element is where the real problem creeps in. Families are always tricky for the more hardboiled literary practitioner. The easy option is to make the hero/ine a rootless loner; otherwise, there's a tendency to make their family just too damned nice, as if to make up for the fact that the day job involves battling the forces of evil. Leonard, McBain, even Andrew Vachss are all prone to family sentimentality.

Higgins falls into the same trap with Jerry Kennedy's family, which ends up lending the novels a faintly smug, self-regarding air. That things have changed is clear from the book's first line of dialogue: 'I admitted it: 'Nineteen-eighty-five was not a good year for me', I told Colin Ryan. . .' ' As the novel opens, Jerry Kennedy's life is bumping along the bottom, the cute family has left him, his wife has taken him to the cleaners in the courts, and his legal practice is failing fast.

Then a judge called Colin Ryan asks Jerry to represent his father, Billy, who has been charged with corruption and is transparently as guilty as sin, which is why five other lawyers have already refused to take the case. Billy Ryan is an archetypal machine politician: he's been Commissioner of Public Works, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 'at least since Noah built the ark: if they didn't have Billy for selling the apple to the serpent who peddled it to Eve, it was because the serpent refused to testify against him. Professional courtesy and all that. If it was still nailed down, where you could see it every morning, Billy hadn't taken it. Most likely because he didn't want it, which meant he hadn't thought of a use for it yet.'

Kennedy takes the job, and hopes to regain his self-respect by winning this unpromising case. Which he does - we know that from the start. So what we are presented with here is a very grey moral tale, in which Jerry Kennedy regains his equilibrium by proving that he's still a first-rate trial lawyer while a guilty man walks free. It's not so much a question of two wrongs making a right as an illustration of right and wrong being wrapped up in one indissoluble package: a return to the profoundly ambiguous territory of A Choice of Enemies.

It's not as good a novel as A Choice of Enemies. Benny Morgan was a living, breathing, thieving, fornicating, charming monster, and an embodiment of the awkward truth that bad people can bring about good things and vice versa; but Billy Ryan remains something of a cypher, a simple symbol of ingrained political corruption. In Defending Billy Ryan, Kennedy persuades himself that he deserved to win this bad case because of all the good cases he's fought; and somehow there's not quite enough distance between Kennedy's voice and the author's own to be sure that his character's cop-out isn't Higgins's as well.

As a result, Defending Billy Ryan is something like taking a three- martini-couple-a-bottles-of-claret- and-several-brandies lunch with a terminally smartarse lawyer undergoing a mid-life crisis. For now we'll assume that this is an effect carefully plotted by the author.

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