Defending Billy Ryan

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

DEFENDING BILLY RYAN is the third in a series of novels about Jerry Kennedy, “the classiest sleazy criminal lawyer” in Boston. Whereas the earlier and more typical books presented a large cast of mostly criminal characters, ranging from the sinister to the comic to the merely bumbling, and moved back and forth between Kennedy’s professional and his personal life, this one is far more focused.

Kennedy’s best friend and only confidante has died, his wife’s adultery has led him to divorce her, and his daughter has married and moved away. Thus all the lawyer really cares about is defending Billy Ryan, the Massachusetts Public Works Commissioner accused of passing inside information to his cronies for mutual gain. Kennedy, pretty much down and out as the novel opens, indeed needs the hundred-thousand-dollar fee, but what matters most to him is principle: he believes passionately in the code of criminal law, and will do everything in his power to uphold it.

Thus it is irrelevant that Billy Ryan, a strikingly unsympathetic character, is in fact guilty not only of this charge but also of many others never brought for lack evidence. For Kennedy, the issue is due process, requiring that the prosecution indeed prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Little about his work is glamorous; it is a matter, rather, of doggedly investigating not only the case itself but also the lives of Billy Ryan, his family, and everyone who ever knew him, in search of some angle that might cast that doubt.

Fans of George V. Higgins will find in this novel less variety, and perhaps vitality, than they have come to expect. But in Jerry Kennedy they will find a protagonist of intelligence and integrity, devoted to his work: a rarity in contemporary fiction. Higgins at less than his best is still better than most. He continues to break down the artificial distinction between genre and mainstream, literary and popular fiction.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. October 11, 1992, p. K13.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, August, 1992, p. 1972.

Boston Globe. September 7, 1992, p. 21.

Chicago Tribune. September 6, 1992, XIV, p. 4.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 22, 1992, p. 12.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, July 1, 1992, p. 801.

New York Law Journal. CCVIII, December 1, 1992, p. 2.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, August 10, 1992, p. 52.

The Wall Street Journal. September 22, 1992, p. A16.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, September 20, 1992, p. 5.