Defending Billy Ryan is George V. Higgins’ third novel about the exploits of Jerry Kennedy, “The classiest sleazy criminal lawyer in Boston.” Although it can stand on its own, readers familiar with the first two in the series—Kennedy for the Defense (1980) and Penance for Jerry Kennedy (1985)—will likely find more to enjoy in it. Numerous characters and events from the earlier books are referred to in passing; whether or not Higgins was deliberately writing for his faithful fans, they will experience a pleasing resonance in details that new readers will find merely tantalizing.
Higgins is a terrific writer, justly famous as a raconteur whose dialogue, especially when the voices are those of small-time crooks, jumps off the page. Defending Billy Ryan is an entertaining novel, far more rewarding than most of the fiction published in any given year. Nevertheless, it is relatively thin, lacking the tremendous variety and vitality of its predecessors.
The title alone is a danger signal. From The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) onward, Higgins in his best work has eschewed tight, narrowly focused plots. Seemingly insignificant details do indeed tend to come together by the end, bringing about revelations which, however, are far less important than the leisurely, convoluted process of getting to them. In the earlier Kennedy novels there is, quite simply, a lot more going on. Kennedy is involved in several cases in each: some appear in a single, often hilarious episode; others surface, submerge, and pop up again just when Kennedy (but not the reader) hopes he has seen the last of them. Woven through the professional episodes, and contributing greatly to the emotional warmth of the books are scenes from Kennedy’s personal life. For him and for the reader, there is never a dull moment. In Defending Billy Ryan, as the title suggests, Kennedy devotes himself to a single case. He is divorced from his wife; his daughter has grown up and moved far away; with a single exception, everyone else he cared about has died. No new love interest or even a new friend has appeared to fill the void, a negative detail that at least confirms Higgins’ independence and originality. By gambling on a linear story short on human interest, sustained almost entirely by inside detail about the practice of criminal law, he has slighted his own great strengths.
Higgins essentially is a comic novelist, reveling in the paradox of characters doomed by their own folly yet stubbornly vital. His best books celebrate life in all of its glorious absurdity. Defending Billy Ryan, colored by the terrible losses Kennedy has sustained, is darker in tone, equivocal in theme. From the beginning, as Kennedy sets out to tell the story of the commissioner of public works whom he successfully defended against corruption charges, the mood is elegiac. It is six years later, and Billy Ryan, the defendant, is dead. In the present time of the novel, Kennedy is driving with another client to Ryan’s wake and “bargain diamonds and battered Boston lawyers don’t look good under strong white light…the question isn’t whether they really need repairs, but whether their value justifies the certain cost.”
Kennedy, however, is perhaps being disingenuous here. Before the Ryan case (turned down by five other lawyers as an invitation to professional suicide) comes his way, he is pretty much down and out, his secretary coming in only three days a week. Then Ryan pays him a hundred thousand dollars in cash. Six years later, as a result of the publicity from the successful defense, he is driving a new Thunderbird and has more business than he can handle. That reversal of his material fortunes, as he is wise enough to know—having had ups and downs enough in the courtroom, after all—is nothing that can be counted on to last. What sustains him is his deep understanding that what he does is indeed of value, and that therefore it is necessary to do it well. That virtually all of his clients, including Billy Ryan, are guilty as charged is beside the point; it is due process that he defends with all his heart, mind, and soul. Kennedy’s convictions, which provide the book with its moral center, sustain the readers as well. If Defending Billy Ryan had no other virtues, it would still be worth reading for its defense of the value and honor of work. In the fiction of the late twentieth century such a viewpoint, rendered through a central character of intelligence and integrity, is close to unique.
Kennedy’s (and by inference his creator’s) interest in process is revealed by a critically important narrative strategy: that Billy Ryan was acquitted is revealed on page 1. Higgins writes about lawyers and the people they defend or prosecute because, having been a criminal lawyer himself, he knows them intimately. His novels, however, are not conventional mysteries or thrillers; rather, they are comedies of manners or, as in this case, serious social commentary. There is a...
(The entire section is 2057 words.)