Police-Beat Writer Spins City Tales

Lawyer-turned-novelist captures `ordinary' people in Boston-based crime stories

IN "Kennedy for the Defense," one of George Higgins's earlier novels, there is a memorable scene in which "Cadillac" Teddy, a professional car thief, is pulled over by a Massachusetts state policeman. The cop asks to see Teddy's driver's license. But since Teddy has not violated any traffic laws, the officer promptly ingests the license - and arrests Teddy for operating a motor vehicle without a permit.

"That's one of those urban legends I heard from a Massachusetts state police officer with whom I worked in the [Massachusetts] attorney-general's office, back in, probably, well sometime between '67 and '70," Mr. Higgins recounts. "And he told it to me as true, and he named the guy who supposedly had done it, whom I knew, but I never asked him thereafter if he had done it."

Like the "license eating" episode, many of the off-beat tales scattered throughout Higgins's 21 novels - most of them set in the grungy milieu of the Boston criminal-justice system - are drawn from his years as a reporter, prosecutor, and defense attorney.

In creating his unforgettable cast of sleazy lawyers and even-sleazier defendants, of cops and mobsters, politicians and judges, Higgins is aided by an unerringly accurate ear for the speech patterns of ordinary people.

"People tell me stories, people have always told me stories, and ones that they haven't known they were telling me, I've picked up by eavesdropping," Higgins explains. But he quickly adds, he is no novelist-as-stenographer. "I don't even get 40, 30 percent of my material from actual stories that have been told to me or overheard. They're more or less the catalytic agents."

Higgins, whose latest book, "Defending Billy Ryan: A Jerry Kennedy Novel," was published this month, is a self-described "ham." Like his characters, he likes to hold forth often and eloquently on just about every subject under the sun.

At one point in the conversation, taking place in the Boston University bookstore cafe, he points at some students sitting nearby. "Those people over there are not worth listening to. They have stories to tell, probably, but they don't know it," he snorts derisively. That is something Higgins could never be accused of - either in person or in print.

Having finished his anecdote about "Cadillac" Teddy's license, Higgins launches into the subject of his new novel. "Defending Billy Ryan" is the third book starring Jerry Kennedy, "the classiest sleazy criminal lawyer in Boston." This time out Kennedy is the only lawyer in town willing to represent Billy Ryan, a longtime public-works commissioner who has been charged with fixing a road contract.

Higgins is enormously proud of his latest novel. "I've always believed that each of my books is the best I've ever written," he says. "I am convinced of it beyond a peradventure of a doubt with `Billy Ryan.' " He even says "it might be placed" among his own personal favorites - a small coterie that includes the 1972 novel that catapulted him to fame, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle."

He attributes the success of "Billy Ryan" not only to his own development as a writer, but, surprisingly, also to his personal computer. "Eddie Coyle" was essentially a first draft, he says.

After that, he never went through more than four drafts of a novel. But the completed version of "Billy Ryan" is a seventh draft - "which is what you can do with a computer," Higgins says proudly.

The lawyer-turned-novelist goes through an intense process to write each book. Ideas will often come to him in the middle of the night, and he will dash to his computer before they "get away." When he starts working in earnest, he sometimes reaches a point of "white heat" when his characters start speaking in their own voices. His creations almost take on a life of their own.

Higgins's "rapture" while writing can astound those around him. Before quitting his legal career in 1983 to write full time, Higgins would often compose novels in his law office. As he was writing, he would occasionally let out a "loud, serrated cackle" of astonishment at his characters' actions.

"I suspect I lost a number of clients that way," he says, "because they decided that I wasn't ready to go to court, I was ready to be committed."

WHILE Higgins says he makes a "comfortable living" as a writer, he is not satisfied with his book sales, which range from 20,000 to 40,000 per novel. "...It's not enough. I'd always like to make more," he complains amiably.

Higgins's other gripe is about his reputation among American critics. While British reviewers have sometimes compared him to Balzac and Henry James, on this side of the Atlantic he is usually known as a "crime" novelist. Higgins firmly denies being a genre writer, saying that he experiments with each book, "trying to push the outside of the envelope."

"I feel sorry for people" who buy a George Higgins book expecting an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, the author says. "They ain't mysteries."

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