James Fallows

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

[George V. Higgins's A Year or So with Edgar], like all his novels since The Friends of Eddie Coyle, mainly displays Higgins' admirable style and ear. Much of the book consists of lengthy monologues by the Edgar of the title, a Boston newspaperman who visits the narrator, Peter Quinn, in Washington….

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Because there is so little plot to get in the way of [the] soliloquys (Edgar finds a new girlfriend; Peter, like nearly all the other men in the book, breaks up with his wife; the children grow), and because the same kind of dialogue comes out of all the characters' mouths, you have to be very fond of George Higgins's style to stay the course. As one of his longtime fans, I had had enough this time half way through; those with keener appetite may find greater reward. (p. 5)

James Fallows, "The Washington Fiction Bandwagon," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), June 24, 1979, pp. 1, 5.∗

Edgar [of "A Year or So with Edgar"] is a Boston political correspondent who is often in Washington, and when he is there he usually has lunch or drinks or dinner with an old Fordham classmate who is now a successful lawyer/lobbyist, and as they eat and drink Edgar talks and talks and talks—about women, divorce, baseball, Washington lawyers, the Massachusetts Mafia, newspapering, politicians, and such. He ruminates, he recollects, he elaborates, he is routinely vilely obscene, he affects a yokel accent, and the harder he tries to be amusing, the more deadly tedious he becomes…. There is no story, no movement, only Edgar smirking and droning. And this, alas, is the George V. Higgins who gave us such crack and crackling originals as "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," "The Digger's Game," "Cogan's Trade." (pp. 89-90)

"Briefly Noted: 'A Year or So with Edgar'," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 24, July 30, 1979, pp. 88-90.

Phoebe-Lou Adams

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Kennedy is a quick-witted, resourceful criminal lawyer. He is also garrulous, short-tempered, and as foul-mouthed as his clients, who are a gallery of those Boston rogues that Mr. Higgins can always make fine company in print although in real life nobody would willingly have one of them on the premises. With no formal plot, [Kennedy for the Defense] consists of a series of episodes which the wily Kennedy finds ways to combine advantageously. Backstage legal maneuvering is what this affair is really all about.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Life & Letters: 'Kennedy for the Defense'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 245, No. 3, March, 1980, p. 102.

John Jay Osborn, Jr.

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Kennedy for the Defense [is] George V. Higgins' full-scale, affectionate portrait of a nuts-and-bolts criminal lawyer at work.

Higgins presents Kennedy and his clients through a series of stitched-together monologues, in which characters meditate on events that take place off-stage. Because the characters ruminate instead of react, there is never much tension in the novel. Compare Kennedy to a novel by Ross Macdonald, another writer who relies on dialogue extensively. Macdonald's dialogue gets its energy from speakers who are trying to hide something, often their own violence. Higgins' characters, like friendly acquaintances in a bar, just want us to listen to them talk about their problems. Yet some of what is lost in the way of tension is gained in the careful depiction of character. In a Macdonald novel we never really have time to get to know the characters. They always kill themselves, or are murdered, just when we're beginning to understand them. Higgins gives us all the time in the world. He tells us everything we need to know about lawyer Kennedy, including exactly how to get to his office.

The picture of Kennedy that emerges is sometimes depressing, but always interesting. If you still view the criminal lawyer as a gunslinger flying off in a Lear jet to defend the weak and the innocent, this book will dispel your illusions. For the most part, Kennedy functions much as an insurance claims adjuster….

John Jay Osborn, Jr., "The Friends of Jerry Kennedy," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), March 2, 1980, p. 14.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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[In Kennedy for the Defense], Boston lawyer George V. Higgins has returned to the low-life scene of his first three books, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," "The Digger's Game" and "Cogan's Trade." But something new has been added that makes this book a big step forward for the author. While the familiar set of cops and cons infest its pages, the story is narrated by a lawyer named Jeremiah F. Kennedy….

The presence of Jerry Kennedy, who, as he puts it, has "a fast larynx," and whose wife "will tell you that I am the classiest sleazy criminal lawyer in Boston," creates certain narrative problems for Mr. Higgins that he hasn't solved to complete satisfaction. Because Kennedy is the "I" through which all the plot developments are filtered, he must either witness or be told everything that happens in the story. (p. 133)

Mr. Higgins tries to make Kennedy's omnipresence seem more plausible by figuratively lowering the curtain on important scenes and then divulging their contents through Kennedy's subsequent conversations. But an air of contrivance hangs over the story that wasn't present in Mr. Higgins's earlier novels, where the action was reported omnisciently.

Still, if Mr. Higgins has sacrificed plausibility by introducing the figure of Kennedy, he has more than compensated by giving us the new worlds his lawyer represents. Instead of just a single petty-criminal milieu of the earlier Boston novels, we are permitted to witness three interlocking realities. At one extreme is the familiar netherworld of Mr. Higgins's crooks and punks. At the other extreme is Kennedy's family, the focus of which is his daughter, Heather, so genuinely innocent and openly loving that her parents wonder aloud what they did to deserve her. And in the middle is Kennedy's professional milieu, where he tries to mediate between the two extremes….

Mr. Higgins seems to have found a new way of saying things in his fiction. In the future, once he has mastered his technique, he may open up worlds that are even more complex and interesting. (p. 134)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'Kennedy for the Defense'," in The New York Times, Section VII (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 2, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 4, 1980, pp. 133-34).

Evan Hunter

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386

George V. Higgins usually writes about criminal types, but his novels cannot be considered mysteries as such, nor are they strictly sociological studies. His beloved turf is Boston and its environs, but he writes about that city with a baleful eye that must surely cause the Brahmins to blush. His dialogue is a composite of Damon Runyon, Harold Pinter and David Mamet, but he has made it uniquely his own and it propels his novels at a furious pace. George V. Higgins writes very good books. "Kennedy for the Defense" is one of his best….

[Higgins] may, at times, rely too heavily upon his obvious skill for writing dialogue. Often he will cut away from a scene in progress and pick it up later with two people talking about what happened, stealing from us the excitement of being present while the scene unfolds onstage. The talk is always compelling, but occasionally the characters will sound interchangeable, as though the unmistakable Higgins style—as identifiable and lifelike as a Segal sculpture—is forcing them into unaccustomed speech patterns. Then too, there are a few loose ends dangling at the novel's end, similar to those baffling lapses one sometimes finds in the work of John le Carré. The mention is deliberate and not all that farfetched; there is, despite their vast differences, a similarity between these two writers. I have always believed that the tremendous appeal of a le Carré novel has little or nothing to do with its depiction of the way spies actually talk or behave. I believe just the opposite to be true; le Carré has invented a wholly convincing environment and people it with totally believable characters, thereby creating an illusion of reality and simultaneously performing a sleight of hand that has transmogrified a tired genre into a fresh and definitive body of work. In much the same way, George V. Higgins has created a genre of his own, in which the people are so real that it doesn't matter what they're doing or how they go about doing it; just being in their company is pleasure enough. He is the le Carré of classy sleaze, and that is classy indeed.

Evan Hunter, "Clients in Trouble," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 2, 1980, p. 8.

Terry Curtis Fox

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The standard line on Kennedy for the Defense is that George V. Higgins, having finally returned to the criminal element of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, is once more back in form. It's a nice standard line since Kennedy is one wonderful book. But it misses the point—Higgins has always been far more interested in lawyers than in criminals….

Throughout his novels, there has been a consistent lawyerly point of view. Higgins's greatest peculiarity is not the celebrated "ear" for dialogue, much noted when Eddie Coyle first came out, but rather his discovery that F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous dictum was an equation that could be reversed. With Higgins, Character is Action. Indeed, what action there is invariably occurs in the past tense—precisely the way it does in a lawyer's office. The concerns of his characters are lawyerly, too: they wish neither the solutions to mysteries nor the ideals of justice, but rather the practical resolution of a short-term personal problem.

Were this all that concerned Higgins, then his reputation would rest with his ability to sketch local color and correct our image of how a criminal lawyer spends his time (mainly—if he is any good—out of court). But Higgins's characters are also lapsed Catholics, and his recent books are increasingly concerned with the problem of forging a viable personal morality in an uncomfortable world.

Kennedy for the Defense, rather than being a return to Higgins's initial style, is in fact a companion piece to last year's A Year or So with Edgar, and Jerry Kennedy, the current protagonist, is a deliberate mirror image of Peter Quinn, Edgar's narrator. Quinn was a rather smug bastard who needed to be jarred out of his hatred for his wife, his kids, and his life. Kennedy is a kind of modern saint; he has formed a perfect world with a woman and a child he loves, as well as maintained a suitable detachment from his career, which permits him to act autonomously from the demands of higher-priced corporate law.

In fact, Higgins's greatest problem in the book is that he is more concerned with establishing the condition of his hero—sketching out his thoroughly pragmatic principles and the means he uses to defend his sanctuary—than in the development of character. Unlike Peter Quinn, there is no need for Jerry Kennedy to change. He stands for a historic compromise, for a private moral code that makes distinctions neither religion nor law can.

Higgins's solution to the dramatic problem is to bring a great deal of incident into Kennedy's office … and in the process [demonstrate] why absolute standards of law and morality have little bearing on the actual world.

Throughout the book, Kennedy complains that he has "no relation to the bastards," but that is not, of course, the case. For Jerry is deliberately named: he is a real Kennedy, a man whose compromised ideals are worth fighting for, just as George V. Higgins is a real novelist, who doesn't depend on crooks for his moral fiction, but can certainly handle them when they walk in the door.

Terry Curtis Fox, "Saint Plus Crooks," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 14, April 7, 1980, p. 34.

Jack Beatty

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 275

[In Kennedy for the Defense Mr. Higgins] tells his story through long monologues, which are often funny but too uniform (his Bostonians all sound alike, "this is true" being one of their favorite locutions) and too labored-over for my tastes. This garrulity, moreover, retards the pace of his rambling plot, which wanes, with our attention. A compensating dose of social observation, accurate or revelatory, might hold our wandering interest. But the most Higgins supplies in this line is the mere naming of local places, and while East Milton Square and Braintree Highlands have resonance for me, I doubt they will mean much to those who did not have the luck to grow up in Boston. As for Higgins's specialty, his talk, it is a wonderful invention, but as a guide to the diverse patois of Boston it is of dubious accuracy and as credible speech it has all the spontaneity and naturalness of a play in verse. I have the feeling that critics have lauded Higgins for his dialogue, doubtless under the delusion that it was authentic, and that this is why he eschews description, narrative, and evocation, for talk, talk, talk. (He even goes so far as to have characters overhear long conversations, a device that ought to have gone out with Polonius and that deserves his fate.) I hereby dispraise him for his talk, and hope that in his next novel he finds a way of sweeping it along with a more energetic plot. (p. 39)

Jack Beatty, "Brief Review: 'Kennedy for the Defense'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 18, May 3, 1980, pp. 38-9.


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What stands out in [Kennedy for the Defense] is its dialog. Higgins' previous works have been commended for their dialog, and in the present case, one must concur. Interestingly, the very quality of the dialog detracts somewhat from its verisimilitude. Most people cannot maintain the level of inventive florid profanity or wry piercing humor that pours forth from most of the characters. The profusion of profanity in fact, from virtually every character, will, in accord with one's own background and experiences, strike one as either very real or very forced. Regardless of this point, however, what the dialog succeeds in accomplishing is a brilliant illumination of the workings of real-world criminal law. Thus while generally being entertained, the reader may indeed learn a thing or two about how the jurisprudence system actually functions.

Tom McNevin, "'Kennedy for the Defense'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1980 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 40, No. 5, August, 1980, p. 167.

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Higgins, George V(incent) (Vol. 10)